Salt Lake City mayor puts new trail construction on hold to rethink approach

Previous critics like the new proposal, which will weigh public input, cultural resources and environmental impact.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Edelman gives an overview to Salt Lake City Council member Amy Fowler of new trails in the Foothills Natural Area on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

The pause on new trail construction in Salt Lake City’s foothills will last through next spring, with Mayor Erin Mendenhall directing a team of consultants to review and rethink the path forward.

Some trails users have grumbled that the first phase of foothills trails, built near the Avenues and City Creek, didn’t follow the master plan, prioritized cyclists over foot traffic, were prone to heavy erosion, and didn’t take into account the historical or cultural significance of native people. Residents also have complained that the city isn’t taking their feedback seriously.

With those qualms in mind, the mayor put new trail construction on hold in May while city staffers reviewed the work and conducted public surveys.

“Ultimately, the city’s role has been to listen,” Mendenhall said at a news conference Tuesday. “The outcomes of these cooperative efforts are really encouraging, and they’ve been very productive.”

The mayor announced Tuesday that the pause will continue until at least June 2022 as the city and outside consultants chart a revised plan.

“A pathway forward that is more collaborative and communicative is possible for us,” Mendenhall said. “We’re already on that pathway.”

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall discusses the path forward for foothills trails at a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

In the months before trail work resumes, one contractor will review potential environmental impacts to vegetation and wildlife, as well as cultural resources.

“[The foothills] hold a lot of meaning for our community today,” the mayor said, “and some areas in our foothills trails system are sacred to the Indigenous people who stewarded them for centuries.”

Another consultant group will review trail design methods and best practices, including an assessment of the trails built in the past two years and old user-created trails. That group also will develop guidelines to help the city adapt to evolving trail uses and new recreation trends.

In addition, a party of communication and planning experts will collect trail feedback and create guidance documents. Mendenhall noted that no budget adjustments are planned.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, was among the stakeholders critical of the city’s trail work and planning.

“We need to be wonderful stewards of this place for generations to come,” Fisher said, “and I think the plan the mayor and the city have sketched out will help get us there.”

As recently as last month, Fisher told The Salt Lake Tribune that the city had been unresponsive to his concerns. But he said his perspective shifted when the mayor’s office reached out to him last week.

“A lesson I’ve learned is quiet doesn’t mean work’s not happening in the background,” Fisher said. “They were really, genuinely, digging in, trying to understand this.”

Members of the city’s Parks, Natural Lands, Urban Forestry and Trails (PNUT) Advisory Board have fielded resident complaints about the trails over recent months and raised misgivings of their own that they were shut out of a truly advisory role for the city.

The mayor said city staffers are reviewing the board’s function.

“Those [changes] haven’t been submitted formally to me yet,” Mendenhall said. “... I’ll look forward to seeing that.”

Polly Hart, a member of the PNUT board, previously called the new foothills trails “shoddily done” and expressed frustration with the Public Lands Department. In an interview Tuesday, she said she was also feeling more optimistic after the mayor’s office engaged with board members over the past week.

“It feels like we’ve turned a corner,” Hart said, “... and that we are going to move forward working together.”