U.S. House bill would finish a Salt Lake County trail — and allow bikes

Rep. Curtis’s bill proposes to redraw wilderness boundaries to enable bike riding on the proposed trail alignments in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) After an 1,100-foot climb, the new Parley's Pointe Trail provides expansive views of the Salt Lake Valley as a rider is treated to the view on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. The 4.8-mile segment of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail is an example of segments under development south of Mill Creek Canyon, which would be advanced by a bill Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, is pushing through Congress. The bill would adjust wilderness boundaries to accommodate bike traffic on proposed trail alignments.

Rep. John Curtis’s bill to rejigger wilderness boundaries to clear a path for proposed trails along the Wasatch foothills cleared the U.S. House on Monday with a unanimous vote.

The purpose of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Advancement Act is to enable bike riding on future stretches of the trail above the Millcreek and Cottonwood Heights, but some wilderness advocates are not pleased with what they see as an unsettling precedent.

Curtis, who grew up exploring the very foothills affected by the bill, views the bill as a worthwhile trade-off to enable greater recreational access to the mountain terrain closest to Utah’s major metropolitan area.

“With the rapid growth in and around Salt Lake City, it is more important than ever to support new recreation opportunities such as the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (BST),” said Curtis, a Utah Republican and former Provo mayor. “As someone who loves walking and biking this trail, I am excited to bring greater access to more Utahns.”

Next stop for the legislation is the Senate, where Sen. Mitt Romney is the sponsor. It enjoys support from Utah’s entire delegation.

The bill would cut 326 acres of designated wilderness in about 20 spots in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest near residential areas in Salt Lake and Utah counties. These are areas where plans are afoot to construct trails from Neffs Canyon south to Big Cottonwood Canyon, as well as farther south near American Fork Canyon. To offset that loss of wilderness, an equivalent amount of land in Mill Creek Canyon would be added to the Mt. Olympus Wilderness.

This land was recently acquired by the Forest Service from the Boy Scouts of America at its Camp Tracy, which has fallen on hard times since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints parted ways with the scouting organization.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

First floated in 2020, the bill wound up dividing trail enthusiasts and conservationists, communities that are natural allies and often include the same people. The conservation group Save Our Canyons, for instance, remains opposed to the measure because it undercuts comprehensive conservation planning for the entire Central Wasatch.

“All the while, Utah’s leaders are chipping away at protected areas of the state, they are also jamming gondolas up canyons and permitting gravel pits — threats the comprehensive legislation would have blocked,” said the group’s executive director Carl Fisher in an email, referencing the failed Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act that arose from the Mountain Accord process nearly a decade ago.

Most of the wilderness adjustments in Curtis’s bill are included in that long-stalled legislation, which Save Our Canyons has championed for years. Fisher and others had hoped to see greater wilderness gains, but those hopes are likely doomed if the Curtis bill becomes law.

“We asked that wilderness offsets include priorities of the conservation community and local governments as articulated in the Mountain Accord,” Fisher continued. “All we did was ask for the priorities articulated in a public process to be included as a part of this bill and [we were] vilified as opponents of trails. I’m not sure our recreational crisis is greater than our ecological one. This legislation suggests otherwise.”

Curtis’s bill, meanwhile, has long enjoyed strong support from Trails Utah and many other trails advocacy and public access groups, which viewed it as a crucial step toward completing an unbroken 280-mile trail following the eastern shore of the ancient lake that once covered much of western Utah.

“The demand for secure access to trails and open space and the need for careful, consistent management is greatest at the wild/urban interface where the BST resides,” said Trails Utah executive director Sarah Bennett.

Gov. Spencer Cox also endorsed the bill because completing the BST carries numerous benefits for a state that prides itself on its world-class outdoor recreation.

“It has the potential to be both a beautiful recreational asset for Utah residents and a tool for teaching us about ancient Lake Bonneville and Utah’s fascinating geologic history,” he said in a prior statement.

The bill would also adjust the boundary of Mt. Naomi Wilderness in Birch Canyon outside Logan. A stretch of trail popular with mountain bikers skirts designated wilderness, so a redraw would “ensure the trail that runs parallel to the road can be fully utilized as a multi-use trail,” according to a release from Curtis’s office.

Under long-standing interpretations of the 1964 Wilderness Act’s prohibition on mechanical transport, mountain bikes have been excluded from designated wilderness. Trails advocates contend that without financial and logistical support from the mountain biking community, completing the BST would not likely happen.