Work on SLC’s foothill trails halted until at least October

Critics say the new trails are scarring the landscape and bringing in too much mountain biking.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews are using mechanized equipment to construct a trail network in the Wasatch foothills above Salt Lake City. Here, a backhoe is parked after a day of cutting trail up Twin Peaks on Tuesday May 12, 2021. The project is drawing fire from conservationists and others who are concerned the trails’ design prioritizes mountain biking over hiking and could damage the foothills’ fragile ecology.

In response to numerous complaints about new trails above the Avenues neighborhood, Salt Lake City officials on Friday halted further trail building until at least October while they review the city’s master plan for trails envisioned in 6,000 acres of foothills rimming the city’s eastern and northern boundaries.

Many long-time Avenues residents and other critics contend the trails plan prioritizes mountain biking over hiking and new trail cutting is scarring the scenic Wasatch foothills unnecessarily, leaving unsightly, erosion-prone gashes across wildlife habitat and areas potentially sacred to Utah tribes. Pausing will allow the city staff to consider the issues that are now coming to light, according to Lewis Kogan, director of the city’s public lands program.

“It just made a lot of sense to take a pause to take the concerns seriously and halt the addition of new trails while we conduct a thorough review to make sure that trail work is, in fact, meeting the objectives of the master plan and the needs of city residents,” Kogan said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bicyclists rides on a new trail in the foothills above Salt Lake City, near City Creek Canyon, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

Last year, the city adopted the 106-mile master plan, developed by the consultant Alta Planning + Design, and began construction on the first phase last fall above the mouth of City Creek Canyon and the Avenues. But as the new trails took shape, many trail users did not like what they were seeing. Some trails seemed poorly sited, they said, and are attracting an influx of mountain biking into an area that is not well suited for absorbing it.

“The foothills abut residential neighborhoods that aren’t prepared for that sort of traffic. They’re without facilities, bathrooms, parking. It’s probably too many people, too many trails, too much, too soon. It’s growth without forethought,” said Salt Lake City resident Ron Barness. “We have a perfectly good trails system that they could add to. Instead, we went out and we built all these new trails in the wrong place.”

One of those wrong places might be on Twin Peaks, which could hold sites sacred to Native Americans, according to Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who was not available for an interview Monday. She halted work on a trail segment there earlier this month to conduct additional cultural surveys.

“These trails hold so much meaning for everyone in Salt Lake City and we want them to be used and enjoyed in a sustainable way for generations to come. Of primary importance in planning for foothills recreation is the fact that some areas are considered sacred by our Indigenous Tribes, and were stewarded as such for generations,” she said in a prepared statement. “We must ensure that trail work engages such stakeholders and we will continue working to grow these relationships. That may require change in travel patterns in some areas as we work to accommodate our growing city and provide accessible trails for all.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carl Fisher, left, and Gavin Noyes of Save Our Canyons salvage native plants, such as arrowleaf balsamroot, that were unearthed during construction of trails in the foothills above Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The trail network taking shape above the city is drawing fire from conservationists and others who are concerned the trails’ design prioritizes mountain biking over hiking and could damage the foothills’ fragile ecology.

Critics of the master plan say they don’t oppose trails, but want to see the trails done right.

Particularly disturbing to Barness and other long-time trail users was the decision to convert choice sections of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to downhill mountain biking only. And many of the new hiking trails seem to be designed with uphill mountain biking, not walking, in mind, they complain.

A case in point is the new trail climbing the bowl rising from Morris Meadows, dubbed “the Mark of Zorro” because the gash in the hillside resembles a massive Z. Because of its uniformly low gradient, that trail makes several long switch backs to reach the top without much thought towards its aesthetics.

Hikers complain that this alignment seems as if it was generated by a computer; they liken hiking the trail to a treadmill.

In the past few weeks, several dozen Avenues residents and the environmental group Save Our Canyons have pressured city officials to take a hard look at what they believe are flaws with the new trails.

Stepping into the fray was Chris Wharton, the City Council member whose district covers the Avenues.

Last week, Wharton emailed a list of pointed questions to city official about the development of the master plan and it implementation. Among other things, he wanted to know why the new trails did not always match the alignments in the plan’s maps.

“They’re asking for this pause to better understand where those differentials from the plan are occurring, why they occurred and who made those decisions,” Wharton said.

According to Kogan, the plan is to serve more as an “outline” for trail alignments, rather than a “blueprint.” The city is giving its contractors flexibility to select the actual alignments using their professional judgment, and sometimes they won’t exactly match up with what’s in the plan.

Wharton said he is still waiting for answers to his questions. The city’s answers will dictate whether greater oversight from the City Council is in order.

“Where you you have a situation that is going to have long-term impact, especially on the environment, we want to make sure that we’re getting it right,” Wharton said. “Even though we also have an urgent need for expanding the opportunities for residents to recreate and exercise outdoors, some of these environmental impacts maybe can’t be undone. So that has to take priority over other needs to make sure that we are doing this in the most equitable and the most sustainable way possible.”

City officials provided some answers to residents’ concerns in a FAQ posted Friday. They are now collecting trail users opinions of the new trails via an online survey posted Monday. It will be up through the end of June.

“We need to hear from a broader audience,” Kogan said. “We shouldn’t be making decisions based on a few comments. The goal is to hear and adapt.”