Ashley Patterson: Salt Lake City should move ahead with Foothills Trail System

Pause in construction was reasonable but it is time to get the plan going again.

(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.

The Salt Lake City Foothills Trail System Plan began in 2016 and included three years of public input, stakeholder meetings and work by Salt Lake City’s Parks and Public Lands’ staff and consultants in order to enhance the existing and primarily user-built trail system that has organically evolved over many decades.

The plan’s fundamentals are well thought out and build on a large body of previous work ranging from the Salt Lake City Open Space Plan from 1992, to the East Bench Master Plan from 2017. The stated project vision is that “The Foothills Natural Area will provide a variety of recreational trail experiences for diverse ages and abilities while managing the Foothills’ environmental resources for future generations” and the five trail system goals are listed as: environmentally sustainable, enjoyable, accessible, safe and low-maintenance.

After spending five years laying the groundwork for a successful implementation phase, in March of 2020 the Salt Lake City Council formally approved the plan. Construction began in summer 2020, just as COVID-19 had really begun to upend life for all of us. The silver lining in the pandemic is that it introduced and encouraged even more people to find much-needed respite from the stress that the virus brought, making this trail system even more important to our residents and visitors.

Despite extensive engagement and planning efforts, phase one of construction came as a surprise to some, who expressed concern and outrage to city officials as these first trails were completed. In response, Mayor Erin Mendenhall paused further construction for several months and then extended the pause for an entire year so that consultants could be brought in to assess the issues and ensure that future phases were in line with the plan’s stated goals.

Nearly one year after the initial pause, the consultants still have not been hired. Thus, Parks and Public Lands staff recently asked the City Council to extend the construction pause for another year to June 2023.

The Salt Lake City Trails Alliance formed to better understand the pause and to advocate for a well-planned network of foothills trails that provides quality recreation opportunities for the broad range of non-motorized users. We promote the idea that trails close to home reduce driving – saving valuable time and money – while benefiting air quality and climate change. As a group of volunteer citizens, we are willing to roll up our sleeves to help with the implementation, maintenance or advocacy of an intentionally designed trails system.

In order to move forward successfully, we understand and support Salt Lake City’s acknowledgement that the implementation of the first phase of the plan did have some problems and we support the city’s commitment to addressing these, including:

  • Re-evaluating the highest angle slope cut areas, particularly near existing infrastructure

  • Constructing retention walls in some high slope angle cut areas

  • Replanting native vegetation on impacted slopes and abandoned trail segments

  • Rehabilitating deep trail closure trenches and banning this practice moving forward

  • Maintaining and enhancing signage, fencing, and shortcut prevention

  • Proactively addressing road/trail drainage issues

However, we also believe that the fundamentals of the approved trails plan are solid and that the plan’s implementation should continue moving forward. As we are now in our third construction pause for this project, we are concerned the future approved phases of the plan will be postponed indefinitely. As Salt Lake City taxpayers, we request a firm deadline for the completion of the consultants’ studies, a publicly stated date when Salt Lake City will announce what new trails will be built, and a firm date for starting construction on these new trails.

Having a defined and firm schedule in place will help all lovers of the foothills regain the trust that Salt Lake City will move forward with new, sustainable trails built for all users. Using the excellent examples set by our neighbors in Park City, Draper, Herriman and other Utah towns, we look forward to working with Salt Lake City to expand and sustain the trail system that our world-class city deserves.

Ashley Patterson

Ashley Patterson, Salt Lake City, is a member of the Salt Lake City Trails Alliance, a citizens group which supports building a balanced mix of new trails in addition to the maintenance of existing trails to allow all foothills trail users a positive and beneficial outdoor experience.