According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Utah has had the highest percentage population increase in the nation, growing 18.4% since 2010. Much of that growth has occurred in the Salt Lake Valley.
Utahns love the outdoors, and many choose to live in the Salt Lake Valley to enjoy the world-class recreation that our canyons have to offer. But many may not realize that these canyons are also our watershed, and the source of much of the water we use in our homes and businesses.
Utahns are faced with the harsh reality of a rapidly growing population rising in tandem with the growing popularity of outdoor recreation. The resultant increase in visitation to our canyons is beginning to impact the health of our canyons and our watershed. We are literally “loving them to death.”
The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is currently determining the safest and most environmentally friendly way to get people in and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), presently in draft form, to analyze alternatives.
The first consideration of the Draft EIS is the visitor capacity of Little Cottonwood Canyon and the impact of increasing human visitation upon it. We also believe the long-term transportation solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon must focus on mass transit for all canyon users. Additionally, the right solution must be flexible to meet the needs of canyon visitors throughout the year while simultaneously protecting our fragile watershed.
Amplifying the need for a canyon-wide transportation solution that extends beyond the resorts, the Winter Wildlands Alliance has noted that human-powered snowsports are “the fastest growing segment within the otherwise stagnant winter outdoor recreation industry.”
Currently, UDOT has narrowed its draft EIS to two alternatives: a gondola and enhanced bus service with a separate bus lane. We believe the enhanced bus with a separate bus lane is the preferred option.
Running from La Caille to Snowbird and Alta, the gondola alternative is attractive to some as an exciting “tourist attraction” or “theme park ride.” But, besides being anathema to NEPA goals, this “sexy” gondola fails to solve the LCC problem for multiple reasons.
First, with only 1,500 parking stalls at its base, the gondola would require many passengers to change modes of transportation three times — personal car to bus to gondola. This inconvenience would limit adoption for many potential visitors.
Second, the proposed gondola serves only the ski resorts. It would serve only those who paid to access a private ski area, but leave behind the growing population of hikers, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, photographers and other canyon visitors. And, depending on cost-feasibility and adoption, it may not run in the summer at all.
The enhanced bus with road widening option meets the goal set out by UDOT to minimize potential harm to the watershed while maintaining the infrastructure to service the whole canyon. This option is flexible and can be changed to meet changing needs for transportation in canyon.
While we support extending the Draft EIS public comment period to address questions in the enhanced bus proposal surrounding snow sheds, water runoff, trailhead parking, parking restrictions, mobility hubs and more, we are convinced that enhanced bus is the better alternative.
In conclusion, the Draft EIS is at the proverbial “fork in the road.” One route leads to successful planning, engineering, visitor management and watershed protection in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The other route leads to an expensive marketing ploy.
The Little Cottonwood EIS Study is open for public comment until Sept. 3. We encourage you to share your feedback at https://littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov/#comment-form
Kody Fox is executive director of The Friends of Alta.