Salt Lake County bans new mines in Wasatch foothills and canyons

The county zoning change aims to block a limestone quarry proposed for Parleys Canyon.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A proposed limestone quarry in Parleys Canyon would be accessed by this road above Interstate 80, photographed Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

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In times past, the Wasatch foothills and canyons yielded minerals and aggregates that built what became Utah’s metropolis on the eastern edge of the Great Basin. This legacy has continued to this day with a controversial proposal to quarry and crush limestone from an open pit in Parleys Canyon.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake County Council decided the time has come to turn the page on the practice and exclude further mineral development in the scenic lands rising behind Salt Lake City, Millcreek and Sandy. In a unanimous vote, council members amended the county’s zoning ordinances to ban new extractive industries in the Wasatch, while continuing to allow the existing operations along the base of the mountains.

Council Member Richard Snelgrove heard from 248 constituents on the matter, all in favor of the mining ban.

“To reflect the will of the people,” he said, “I believe we must amend this ordinance to avoid irreparable harm to the landscape, air quality, water quality, habitat for wildlife. Harm that would negatively affect the quality of life for the people of Salt Lake County and in Utah — not only quality of life now, but for generations to come.”

The move came in response to a proposed limestone operation in Parleys Canyon hardly three miles from Salt Lake City on the flank of Grandeur Peak. Through its publicist, proponent Tree Farm LLC said the county’s move is illegal because it violates a 2019 law that bars local governments from restricting the mining of sand, gravel, crushed stone and other “critical infrastructure materials.”

“Sadly, this ordinance will affect the property rights of not only the potential mine owner but of many others,” wrote publicist Matt Lusty in an email. “Additionally, this process has sadly shed a light on another serious issue: the attempt by privileged individuals in our state to bend a legal process to their will, leaving lawful businesses without recourse. To protect the rights of Utahns, we are considering our next steps.”

Tree Farm, and its operating partner Granite Construction, have argued that Parleys Canyon is an appropriate place to extract aggregates because of its proximity to where Utah’s growth is occurring. Shortened haul distances would reduce diesel emissions, truck traffic and construction costs. They recently agreed to scale the project down to just 20 acres to qualify for a less rigorous review from state mining regulators.

Still the project has generated intense opposition from Salt Lake County residents, especially the 100 families that own cabins in adjacent Mount Aire Canyon. They were blindsided by the proposal when it became public in November, as were various elected officials. Nearly 25,000 signed an online petition urging officials to reject the quarry.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Parleys Canyon property owner has proposed operating a massive limestone quarry on a 634-acre parcel at this spot in Parleys Canyon, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson promptly denounced the project, while county officials initiated a process to change the zoning ordinance to eliminate mineral extraction and processing as a conditional use.

After hearings last month, the then-proposed ban won favor with the Mountainous Planning District and Salt Lake County planning commissions, which found that mineral extraction is not compatible with the purposes of the county’s Forestry and Recreation Zone and the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone, or FCOZ. Negative impacts cited include increased dust emissions, noise, watershed impairment, elevated wildfire risk, increased traffic and loss of habitat.

Together these two zones cover much of the county’s portion of Wasatch Mountains, from the crest down nearly to the University of Utah campus and Foothill and Wasatch boulevards.

The proposed limestone quarry is in the FCOZ. An existing quarry, which is partially owned by Tree Farm, operates a mile down Parleys from the proposed pit.

Mining, of course, is embedded into this very landscape. Historic limestone quarries and kilns can be seen all along the foothills above Salt Lake City. Materials extracted and cooked in these hard-scrabble operations provided the mortar that hold the city’s early masonry structures together. Higher up in the canyons, old adits, shafts and tailing piles mark the locations of once busy hardrock mines, which yielded the silver and other metals that propelled Utah’s economy beyond agriculture more than a century ago.

Today, however, the Wasatch is valued primarily as a source of water, a venue for recreation, habitat for wildlife and a scenic backdrop to Utah’s population centers. Mineral extraction lies in direct conflict with all that, according to Wilson.

“Our Wasatch canyons are vital to county residents’ quality of life, and we must fight to protect them,” the county mayor said in a statement released ahead of Tuesday’s hearing. “Our canyons provide clean drinking water and mining impacts water quality and harms our air. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to preserve our canyons for both recreation enjoyment and the preservation of health.”

Holladay resident Brian Moench, founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the proposed quarry would expose downwind residents to toxic levels of dust and diesel pollution.

“There is no doubt that it would impair both the quantity and quality of the snowpack and water resources that originate in part of these canyons,” he told the county council. “There is no doubt it would destroy important wildlife habitat, and there is no doubt that supposed reclamation would probably never happen. But even if it did, it would be a farce to call it restoration.”

Several Millcreek residents, including city councilwoman Cheri Jackson, noted the Canyon Rim neighborhood lies in the direct path of dust plumes blowing from the existing Harper’s quarry.

“I know that Tree Farm has said that they will follow our protocols to mitigate fugitive dust,” said Canyon Rim resident Nicole Allen. “However, probably my biggest concern is the fact that when wind speeds are over 25 mph, then they’re completely off the hook for mitigating dust. And wind speeds are 40% of the time over 25 miles per hour.”