John Adams: The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in Little Cottonwood Canyon

We need to balance the private interest against the public good.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall color in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

UDOT’s proposed multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon comes at a time when Utahns’ anxieties about growth are at an all-time high, underscoring the breakdown of sense-making or our ability to come to a consensus.

If we all love the canyons, why are we deeply divided on the gondola? Are our values really that different when we view things through the lens of a citizen versus a consumer?

The widely used canyons tagline: “Love it to death” is a sentiment that echoes Economics 101′s “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It cited 19th-century farmers using a common plot of land on which to graze their sheep. Ultimately, over-grazing occurred because the land, which was controlled by and taken care of by no one, was used up by everyone. The individual incentive to consume the resource in order to endlessly grow sheep herds cost everyone the ultimate price: The resource is used up and destroyed.

The economic solution for this conundrum was to manage land by private ownership, providing private goods, and public ownership providing public goods. This economic model implied that privatization could solve “The Tragedy of the Commons” as the short-term gain wouldn’t supersede a long-term investment, and public ownership would protect the commons through regulation.

By definition, private goods cost money, meaning they are not available to all people. On the other hand, public goods and services, theoretically, are administered by governments, paid for collectively through taxation, and made available to all people.

It’s easy to see that interest in the Cottonwood Canyons covers a multitude of public and private goods and services. Consider the public resource of drinking water, and even the snow, rocks and trails of wilderness experiences, versus the ski resorts, private developments and wide-ranging retail businesses and their associated state tax income. The diverse array of interests heightens political emotions, polarizes us and ultimately degrades sense-making. Should we exploit our canyons to support and enable more growth?

While the public and private ownership model was intended to save us from “The Tragedy of the Commons”, the clashing of powerful private business interests on our public lands (i.e. ski resorts, retail, hotels) with the quasi-public ownership (i.e., UDOT public roads, U.S. Forest Service land and Salt Lake City Water District (stream/riparian area) is at the core of our divide.

The gondola plan, along with its ability to enable yet more growth in the canyon, exacerbates confusion as it falls across both public and private concerns. The fragile and intangible value of the canyon, a public resource belonging to the commons and managed for all of us by the federal government, is attempting to be measured against privately owned business desires and their downstream impact on tax revenue. The tax revenue is used by the state government to cope with the broadening social and environmental issues which are generated by growth in the first place.

The lines blur when a limited-use gondola is funded by public taxes, which only serves access to two privately owned ski resorts. Whether you are for or against the gondola, one can’t help but ask questions like:

“How do we come to terms with publicly funded projects that enable only a few private businesses to further exploit natural resources of the commons (our land) for their financial gain?”

“As our population grows and our water supply dwindles, do we consider excluding our canyons as a new source of economic growth?”

“What is the capacity threshold of the canyons?”

In the United States, there is a unique focus on the individual, and individual freedoms, often instead of community or ecosystem. Is it time to transition from the paradigm of how we grow to how we thrive?

To question the gondola is to question why we are divided and then see where our values meet. We are socially and politically conditioned to think as individual consumers, which inherently divides us. When acting as citizens, though, we can see our many shared values. Through this community lens, with a vision of our desired future, the long-term good of the commons can prevail over short-term individual gain. So, do we learn from “The Tragedy of the Commons” or are we doomed to repeat it?

John Adams

John Adams, Cottonwood Heights, is a retired technology systems sales consultant from the financial services industry, a student of transitional economic theory and has worked in the ski industry in Big Cottonwood Canyon for more than 30 years.