Jake Young: Path to planning the Wasatch Canyons is as steep and rewarding as our mountain views

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) This June 10, 2019, photo shows hiker Tony Larsen posing for a photograph at a waterfalls, in the Big Cottonwood canyon, near Salt Lake City.

I began work on the Wasatch Canyons General Plan (Canyons Plan) update in 2017. When starting I had a conversation about the Canyons Plan with a community leader with canyons experience. He described the challenges as a “hornets’ nest” and would not touch it.

This caused me to pause. Salt Lake County’s team and consultants had a seemingly monumental task of updating the plan for one of the most revered places in Utah. Through time, I realized there is a path to progress for the canyons planning, but it is steep, almost straight up like many of our Wasatch Canyons trails. It requires a constant effort and can only happen through significant collaboration by many parties.

Almost no recreational area in Utah gets more attention than the Wasatch Canyons, where visitation exceeds some of Utah’s national parks. After all, they do provide the beautiful backdrop to our capital city and most populous county.

The process to update the Canyons Plan began with a review of all recent and relevant documents, covering existing county plans, traffic and transportation, wildlife populations, open space acquisition, watershed management, recreation studies, natural hazards, parking, scenic byways, federal and regional plans, and the list goes on. The newly updated plan does not come from scratch, it builds upon years of previous work.

Tuesday, the County Council finalized adoption of the Wasatch Canyons General Plan.

The Canyons Plan provides a “Community-Built Vision,” which comes from the input of thousands of residents, community leaders, consultants and involved stakeholders. The plan provides a clear path from vision to goals including strategies and actions to achieve both.

Recent critics of the Canyons Plan say it does not answer all the questions for fire, transportation or others in detail, which is true. The Canyons Plan intends to shape future decisions made by the county, while specific emergency/wildfire/transportation plans go further into detail to answer those questions.

Three of the four major roadways are UDOT managed rights-of-way. The Canyons Plan recommends year-round transit and adequate roadways to encourage “mode choice,” or the ability to choose between bike, transit or vehicle.

In recent years ski bus ridership has had a dramatic increase and is expected to keep increasing over time. From the 2017-2018 season to 2018-2019, UTA numbers show nearly a 37% increase in total ridership in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

One of the best additions to the Canyons Plan came near the end, when policy makers, conservation voices and staff discussed how to help people not contrive simple statements from the plan for their own use. If a request comes before the county which is not in the document, the Canyons Plan states, “It is generally understood that the applicable County authority should consider the vision statements, goals and strategies set forth in this General Plan in a holistic manner in connection with any formal recommendation or final action regarding such matter.”

One of the greatest attributes of the plan is the big picture vision and goals it provides.

As canyon challenges and populations grow in Utah, I believe three major practices will help handle these challenges.

First, consistent collaboration among government agencies, stakeholders and the public towards common goals. Diagramming government roles in the canyons is more complicated than a football play with all the Xs, Os and curvy lines. Coordination is happening but needs to continue, even more so in the future.

Second, focus on making small to medium projects happen regularly. Often the canyons get stuck in the mud of political debates. We need the incremental progress of both preservation measures and maintained recreational facilities at key locations.

Third, treat the plan as a living document. Within it are recommendations for yearly reviews and minor updates every five years, with a major update in 15-20 years. The county and others can spend less time on overhauls and more time on implementable projects by doing regular updates.

Through this process it has clearly been shown that thousands of Utahns carry a deep passion and love for the Wasatch Canyons. The future of the canyons is bright – but it requires a willingness to work collaboratively. Current and future leaders are going to be able to rely on the new Canyons Plan as a map with a vision to help preserve some of Utah’s most valuable assets.

Jake Young

Jake Young is the planning program manager for the Planning and Transportation Division of the Office of Regional Development at Salt Lake County. He is a certified planner and professional landscape architect with more than 14 years of professional experience.