Little Cottonwood Canyon has been subject to exploitation since Euro-American settlement in the Salt Lake Valley. The settlers drilled and dug deep into its limestone and granite walls, looking for minerals.
When the few minerals they discovered were all gone, they cut down all of the trees, degrading the habitat and watershed. Since then, the ski resorts have driven the big business up canyon. Lifts, lodges and condos fill the upper reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon. They now operate on much of the best high elevation terrain and landscape.
This debacle is not simply on the ski resorts though. It is a legacy of poor planning and our Legislature bending to the whims of developers. There is big money to be made, and there’s no way that our policy-makers will get in the way of that. At some point though there will be a reckoning. We must understand that this place has a carrying capacity.
We can only load up the canyon with so many people and so much infrastructure. One day we’ll wake up and there will simply be nowhere else to go. We want to keep planning for “mobility and reliability”? No. We must plan for something else.
We must plan for the mountains, for the watershed and for a hotter, drier future in the Mountain West. We have to plan around the fact that winter mountain recreation and wilderness experience is innately based in scarcity, and that each year it is changing dramatically.
This reality is not in the current draft environmental impact statement. Neither a gondola nor road expansion will solve these problems. They will only further exacerbate the problems we already see — traffic jams, long lines, grumpy tourists and people literally fighting for the last scraps of fresh snow. They play into the developers hand. They are marketable ways to push a money-making agenda, to get more people up canyon, faster. The current plans only allow for winter recreation at the two ski areas. They will both demolish the canyon bottom and, worse still with the gondola, the viewshed itself. This is unacceptable.
Let’s take a step back. What do we want to do? We want to help people better experience Little Cottonwood Canyon. All people, in all seasons, for all purposes. We want to maintain an environmentally sound canyon and to help restore regions that are degraded. We can accomplish this without massive development in the canyon, indeed we must.
Pieces of the current DEIS are good. Let’s build a large parking structure at the gravel pit. Let’s run clean-burning busses up both Big and Little Cottonwood from there and 9400 Highland. While many will be direct lines straight to the ski resorts, some should be flexible backcountry buses, running 12 months a year.
Let’s have variable lanes that only allow busses and HOVs during peak hours. Let’s limit the amount of cars that go up the canyons on specific days. Let’s work with the U.S. Forest Service and counties to make a large-scale Wasatch plan. And let us all realize that there are some days we simply will not make it up Little Cottonwood Canyon to go skiing. Mother Nature and living in an urban metropolis should make that easy enough to understand.
Let’s start with that. We don’t need to break ground when we really haven’t even made an earnest effort at a more holistic and less invasive solution. This sounds like a crazy torch to carry these days, but I just want to know that, in the future, if Little Cottonwood Canyon is lost to industrial development, I did my part to help future generations see and experience what I have in this amazing little piece of the world. I owe it too much not to.
Jack A. Stauss, Salt Lake City, lives in Salt Lake City where he skis, works for an environmental organization and enjoys the amazing landscape and community of the Wasatch Front.