Public outcry over new trails cut through Salt Lake City’s foothills caused the mayor to put future work on hold, stoking frustrations among residents who liked the paths and want to see more.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Tuesday that an order she issued back in May to stop work on the trail system would last until at least June 2022.
The mayor, City Council and city staffers have fielded numerous complaints about the trails, which deviate from the master plan in some places, are prone to erosion in others and resulted in the closure of legacy trails on ridgelines. Other stakeholders have asked the city to take into greater consideration any impacts to the environment and the Indigenous history of the foothills.
But strong contingents support the new trails plan and many are disappointed to see new construction paused.
“It was a well-thought-out plan,” said city resident Michael Yount, a former Salt Lake Tribune staffer. “Nothing’s ever perfect, but they did such a great job separating traffic with the new trails.”
Opponents of the new trails have complained that they were cut at such low grades that they appear to have been built with cyclists, not hikers, in mind.
Yount disagrees. He argued new and future trails built for downhill-only bike traffic help reduce conflict among users.
“They created a much nicer trail to both hike and ride,” he said.
Yount added that he didn’t blame the mayor for pausing future trail work, given all the outcry.
But “I feel like it’s a vocal minority” who are complaining, he said. “... The day-to-day users are not putting up yard signs.”
Nancy Schmaus, head coach of the multischool Salt Lake City Composite Mountain Biking Team, said she was excited about the plan for new trails as the foothills increasingly become more crowded.
“There’s really limited space for us to ride in Salt Lake,” she said. “My kids get bored riding the same trails.”
She added that interest in mountain biking is growing, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic. Biking allowed kids and adults to recreate outdoors at safe distances. This year, she had to turn away 20 kids from the team because she didn’t have the capacity to meet the influx in interest.
“Demand is growing,” Schmaus said. “Now we put back [trail work] for a whole other year?”
The coach added that the city was “behind the ball” with trail building compared to nearby mountain bike magnets like Park City and Corner Canyon.
She also pointed out the city began planning its new 106-mile foothills trails plan several years ago — a process that included public outreach and collecting feedback.
“Then they start cutting the trails and suddenly there’s a huge uproar,” Schmaus said. “I find it disappointing they don’t continue to build the trails. I just don’t understand how they’re going to change what they’ve already spent four years doing. How much better are they going to make it?”
Elected leaders respond
City Council member Chris Wharton, who represents the Avenues area where most of the new trails were cut, said the feedback he’s received has been split.
“A lot of residents are relieved that there is going to be a review of what’s been done,” Wharton said Thursday, ”and more careful planning going forward.”
The councilman added that there are also frustrations among residents who waited a long time for new trails and recreation opportunities.
“In the end, though, I think most people agree that waiting another 10 months is a small price to pay,” Wharton said, “if it means we have 100 years of more sustainable trails for all our users.”
In an interview Friday, Mendenhall acknowledged the city already completed an extensive public outreach effort on trails plans starting in 2017.
“We know that work happened,” the mayor said. “... In my years with the City Council and now in this role, there have been many a public process that was robust and lengthy. Yet, when [we] concluded and decisions were made and projects funded, we heard from people who felt no process had taken place.”
Mendenhall said during the latest feedback process, the city has received about 30 letters that were mostly positive. The mayor added that the few residents who shared disappointment over the work pause were generally concerned that a single user group would win the city’s focus when trail building resumes.
“I’ve tried to reassure those individuals that is the very purpose of why we need this longer amount of time to engage,” she said, “so we can wholly incorporate the voices we need to and want to.”
The mayor said she’s particularly excited to work with tribal leaders.
“Frankly, the lack of a relationship between our governments,” Mendenhall said, “is so significant that [we haven’t had] the best information about areas that are sacred or should be protected.”
That relationship, she said, “is something we are now building.”
Those wanting to provide feedback and complete a survey about the trails during the mayor’s moratorium can visit slctrails.com.
A new trail advocacy group?
Longtime Salt Lake City resident and trail user Kenton Peters said he is in the early stages of forming a pro-trails and pro-mountain biking group to ensure a balanced hearing moving forward.
“We respect what the other groups are saying,” Peters said, “but we want to make sure mountain bikers don’t get shortchanged as the pause continues.”
Still, Peters said he agreed with some of the concerns raised by organizations like Save Our Foothills and Save Our Canyons, which advocated for a reevaluation of the trails plan.
“There are problems with the current trail layouts and the approach,” Peters said. “We don’t like to see the foothills poorly developed and scarred. ... The [hiking trails] on Morris Meadows, they’re an awfully shallow grade.”
He added he was “disappointed” that old trails along the ridgeline were removed from the system and that trailhead parking is an issue for Avenues neighborhoods.
“But our group is different,” Peters said, “in that we are trying to speak for the hundreds of young riders and the adults [cyclists] who are, really, the growth area in foothill use and the future of it.”
Many of the new trails were planned for mountain bikes, and Peters said he worried the pause meant they might not ever get built.
“We would hope to work with the other groups and the city to provide suggestions for solutions that are a win-win for everyone involved,” he said. “... What we’ve heard [so far] seems to put bicycles at part of the problem. We want to be seen as part of the solution.”