Big Cottonwood Canyon trails no longer open to public after Forest Service agreement collapses

Forest Service, landowners at odds over motorized access to private land in Cardiff Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Much of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Cardiff Fork is private land, including the upper portions pictured here Sept. 10, 2022. Private property owners have revoked public access through their inholdings after a long-standing agreement with the U.S. Forest Service collapsed this summer.

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A long-standing agreement that had enabled recreational access across private land in Big Cottonwood Canyon has collapsed amid of spate of finger-pointing and recriminations.

Hundreds of acres of old mining claims in Cardiff Fork form private parcels within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. A special permit has allowed owners motorized access to the land since 2012, but that permit expired on May 31, 2022. Under the deal, the recreating public could ski and hike across these inholdings situated in a glaciated alpine cirque at the heart of the Wasatch Mountains’ storied backcountry ski terrain.

But no more, according to Ben Kraja, the forest’s acting Salt Lake district ranger.

“It was their [the Cardiff Canyon Owners Association’s] decision,” Kraja said. “They notified us on May 31 they would not be renewing [the permit]. They think they own a right of way. We haven’t seen any credible evidence that a legal right of way exists.”

That apparently hasn’t stopped some of the landowners from cutting the lock on a gate at the mouth of the canyon near Donut Falls and “continually” driving up the steep, rugged road to the head of the canyon in violation of federal law, Kraja wrote in Sept. 2 email to the public.

Phone messages left with three different owners — Wayne Crawford, Cyle Buxton and Kevin Tolton — were not returned. Robert T. Spjute, a lawyer representing the Cardiff Canyon Owners Association (CCOA) also did not respond to a phone message.

In a July 28 letter to Salt Lake County Council Member Dea Theodore, Spjute complained Forest Service rangers are acting in a “passive-aggressive manner” toward property owners in the weeks since the permit expired and creating a “situation of unease and contention.”

“For example, a [Cardiff Canyon Owners Association] lock was removed from the double lock system of the Forest Service gate, preventing the CCOA members’ access to their property,” Spjute wrote. “CCOA is also concerned this may create a hostile environment between private landowners and the public users/recreationalists.”

So at a time when recreational pressure on the Central Wasatch is exploding, public access is getting more complicated.

“People [hikers and skiers in Cardiff] need to do their homework and know where private lands are,” Kraja cautioned.

Good luck with that. Land ownership there is a patchwork of oddly shaped private parcels surrounded by national forest. The “no trespassing” signs affixed to numerous trees just add to the confusion because they give no indication of where the property lines are.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Private property owners may no longer drive through the locked gate at the mouth Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Cardiff Fork, pictured on Sept. 10, 2022, after their permit to drive up the road expired this summer.

This jumble of private and public land is the legacy of the 1872 Mining Law that handed federal land to anyone who staked a claim and tapped it for its mineral wealth. One-time public lands privatized under that law, oftentimes in alpine settings revered by skiers and climbers, were typically abandoned after these sites were mined out, leaving an environmental mess for future generations to clean up.

Such is the case in Cardiff Fork, where about 30 historic mine portals remain open or unreclaimed, including one about two miles up the road where a steady stream of potentially contaminated groundwater is disgorging into Salt Lake City’s culinary water supply.

That mine was slated to be sealed this month, but the access dispute disrupted state-funded efforts to close these old mines, according to Hollie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining’s (DOGM). The agency’s abandoned mine program had been working in Cardiff this summer, but it suspended work following a tense stand-off.

Crews had flown equipment by helicopter to the open mine two miles up the road. The plan was for crews to walk to the site, rather than drive, according to Brown.

On Sept. 2, while exiting the canyon ahead of the Labor Day weekend, one crew was confronted by an “angry mob” of landowners gathered at the locked gate, according to Brown, where the owners directed their frustrations at the reclamation team. Police were summoned to help defuse the situation and DOGM pulled out its equipment.

“There is one remaining mine closure in Cardiff Canyon, but will be closed another time when the access issues are resolved,” Brown said in an email, referring to the mine two miles up the road. “The mine closure work consisted of constructing gates, grates, walls, and backfills of abandoned mine openings with approval from the landowner. The work is intended to address physical safety hazards remaining from historic mining. We do not close mine openings without a signed right-of-entry from the landowners.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) This historic mine in Big Cottonwood Canyon was to be sealed this month, but the plan was suspended pending resolution to a dispute between the U.S. Forest Service and landowners, who are now barred from accessing their inholdings in Cardiff Fork with motorized vehicles.

Located above Donut Falls, Cardiff is the Big Cottonwood side canyon drained by Mill D South creek, nestled between Mineral and Days forks. For years it has been a popular ski destination, particularly by skiers entering from Little Cottonwood Canyon in search of powder in steep chutes at the head of Cardiff Fork.

Few appreciate the fact that much of this land is private, said skier Chris Adams, president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance. He is concerned that this winter could see a renewed wave of confrontations between skiers and property owners.

“Recreationists are going to have some serious problems and unpleasant encounters up there,” Adams said. “We have said, ‘Don’t engage [with upset landowners].’ We advise people not to get into shouting matches. I avoid Cardiff as a ski destination. I’m worried now more than before because tensions are running higher.”

While the 2012 agreement has kept the peace for the past decade, tensions have been mounting between the Forest Service and some property owners, who are frustrated with the strict limits imposed by Salt Lake County to develop and use their land.

Over the past year and a half, the Forest Service has issued six letters of noncompliance to property owners regarding their use of motorized vehicles on national forest land, according to Kraja. The letters documented instances of driving off roadways and unauthorized road maintenance.

While no fines or citations were levied, these letters indicate the Forest Service believes property owners have not been abiding by the terms of their permit. And the owners association has failed to provide the Forest Service a list of people authorized to access the private property by motor vehicle, Kraja said.

The Forest Service has since hardened the gate at the mouth of Cardiff so the lock cannot be cut.

“There are no active special use permits for access up there beyond the gate,” Kraja said. “Motorized use in Cardiff Fork beyond the locked gate is currently prohibited under federal law without Forest Service authorization.”

Reached Monday, Theodore, the council member, said she is concerned the property owners are not being treated fairly.

“They just want to recreate on their land and they have been shut down so many times,” said Theodore, whose district covers the Cottonwood Canyons. “Everything they do, it seems like they just get shut down over and over by every agency that’s involved. There’s something they’re always doing wrong and they’re always wanting to shut them down. And it’s ongoing.”