As Salt Lake City pauses to reflect on its ‘shoddily done’ foothills trails, residents say their concerns aren’t being taken seriously

Members of an advisory board to the Public Lands Department are asking to have more oversight.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

As an October deadline looms for Salt Lake City to resume work on its new foothills trails, some trail users and advisers say the Public Lands Department isn’t listening to their warnings of impending disaster.

The city’s foothills largely include a loose system of user-created trails and old maintenance roads. In an attempt to bring order to the network, and improve features like signs and trailheads, Public Lands (formerly the Parks and Public Lands Division) created a master plan to build new trails using best practices and decommission unsustainable ones.

But after the department and its consultant constructed the first round of new paths near City Creek and the Avenues, many city residents and trail users are less than impressed.

“Once we have snow, and everything freezes and thaws, the trails will have major erosion issues,” cautioned Eric Edelman, a city resident who studies soil mechanics. “They’ll get washed out. The moment you put a bike on it, major ruts will occur. Banks will be destroyed.”

Sections of the new trails have already washed out or sit heavily eroded. In some places, trails don’t follow the master plan, abruptly turning and switchbacking up the hillside. Beloved, nearly century-old trails along ridgelines have been decommissioned. Users complain that the new paths have such gradual inclines that it’s apparent they were designed for bikers, not hikers and trail runners.

“It’s like walking on a dirt sidewalk,” Edelman said.

(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.

Polly Hart, a member of the Parks, Natural Lands, Urban Forestry and Trails (PNUT) Advisory Board called some of the trails a “hideous scar on the hillside.”

“The construction issue, the actual implementation of the trails, I don’t think anyone knew it would be as shoddily done as it was,” Hart said. “The board was moderately involved in the planning, but all we ever did was give feedback. We didn’t participate in planning sessions, so it was hard to know that it was going to be so bike-centric.”

Hart said members of the public have been showing up to their monthly meetings to complain about the new trails since the spring. But she said it doesn’t appear that the Public Lands Department is taking the feedback seriously, including complaints coming directly from the board.

“They just give them lip service,” PNUT board member CJ Whittaker said. “The board is practically useless in the whole process.”

Feeling ‘powerless’

The foothills snafu prompted some board members to dig into their bylaws and figure out how much authority they have to intervene. At their July meeting, they asked Public Lands Director Kristin Riker to explain their duties.

“I would like the board to represent their communities,” Riker said, and act as “a line of communication and representation of our city ... so we are acting in the best interest of our residents.”

(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.

Hart, however, pointed out that the board’s bylaws state that members are supposed to make recommendations on capital improvement projects — on which, she said, they are not consulted. They are also supposed to provide input on the department’s budget and submit advice directly to the mayor and City Council, which Hart, who has been on the board for five years and is currently the longest-serving member, said they have not been allowed to do.

“The ordinance tasks us with doing that. It doesn’t say we can if we want; it says we are [supposed] to do this,” Hart said at the July meeting. “I feel like I’m just showing up and saying ‘awesome’ or ‘thumbs down.’ I just feel really powerless.”

Board member Phil Carroll complained that the board’s meetings are too rigid and rushed.

“These agendas are so tight it’s not so conducive to discussion,” Carroll said at the meeting. “These are complicated issues with a lot of different stakeholders ... We’re [viewing things] at 10,000 feet. I’d like to be at 10 feet.”

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Whittaker said complaints about the new trails have been largely framed in the media as a narrative about clashes between hikers and bikers. He said that’s not the case, noting that many bikers also hike.

“It makes sense for the city to consider trail options for bikers because they need special treatment,” Whittaker said. “Everyone knows that, everyone accepts that — no one has a problem with it.”

Frustrations instead lie with the city and its decision to remove existing paths that hikers enjoyed because they were steep and challenging.

“They’re also closing trails under the false assumption that they are environmentally unstable,” Whittaker said. “We have 100 years of evidence to say that they’re wrong.”

In board meetings, some members of the public have commented that the new bike trails are both ugly and aren’t particularly enjoyable. Whittaker agreed.

“In Morris Meadows ... they took this broad mountainside that was beautiful and carved out an asinine zigzag,” he said. “It’s got these hairpin turns, and it’s not even a fun mountain biking trail.”

City was ‘pretty unresponsive’

For Hart, another frustration lies with the organizations the city listed as stakeholders in its master plan for the foothills. She said one of the groups she’s involved with, the off-leash dog advocacy group Millcreek FIDOS, was never consulted. She said she ran through the list and found several other stakeholders were also not contacted by the department.

“When they stepped forward,” Hart said, “they were basically told to get lost.”

(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.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said he was among the stakeholders left out.

“Back in 2017, as they were starting this process, we reached out and tried to set some meetings up,” Fisher said. “Really, the city was pretty unresponsive to our concerns.”

Fisher said he has since walked the trails with a Public Lands employee and shared his thoughts. But he said it still feels like the city isn’t listening.

“We’ve tried to email them, tried to get data, so we could do our own analysis,” Fisher said. “They’ve just not responded to any of it.”

The Tribune requested comment from the Public Lands Department and Mayor Erin Mendenhall for this story. In response, a spokesperson for the administration directed the newspaper to a July tweet from the mayor encouraging residents to take a survey about the trail system.

In an attached video, the mayor noted she had placed a stop-work order on trail work until October while the city reassesses its plan.

At the PNUT board’s July meeting, Lewis Kogan, director of the city’s Trails and Natural Lands Division, acknowledged some of the concerns.

One switchback on the Lower City Creek Trail has heavily sloughed, becoming “extremely visible and unattractive, and I think caused some pretty significant scenic impairments,” Kogan said. But, he added, “I believe that is going to be temporary.”

Other trail sections with heavy erosion will stabilize and revegetate over time, Kogan told the board. While work is on hold until October, the department intends to collect feedback and conduct a third-party audit of the trails master plan, he said.

Still, some board members remain skeptical.

“I don’t expect them to do anything,” Whittaker said, “because they’ve been so callous in their response to the public and the board. The mayor’s office, too, is totally silent. This is Erin Mendenhall’s legacy.”

During a recent tour of the Foothills trails with Hart and Edelman, City Council Chair Amy Fowler said all council members were aware of the public’s concerns and are taking them seriously.

“Based on the briefings we’ve had, it seems like somewhere along the line there was some miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Fowler said. “... Why did we deviate so much? If there was a plan, why didn’t we stick to plan? In all honesty, maybe there’s a really great reason. At this point, I just don’t know.”