Shawn Teigen and John Salevurakis: Plan would enhance access to trails and green space in Utah

Rising population makes it more difficult for people to enjoy Utah’s natural beauty.

Think about the last time you went hiking in Utah. Did you lose yourself in the beauty of this great state, hearing only the sounds of nature? Or did you get stressed while hunting for a place to park your car and then end up passing scores of other hikers, bikers and dogs along the trail?

Think about the last time you were enjoying an urban hike – along the Legacy Parkway Trail, the Jordan River, the Murdock Canal Trail, or maybe one of the other myriad trails around the state. Did you enjoy an entire day outside? Or find yourself awkwardly standing at the “end of the line” knowing you were just a short distance from a strangely separate trail?

Even the latter scenarios could certainly end up being great days out in nature, but Utahns are bound to see more and more people and pets along the streams and in the hills and mountains that we love.

And we do love it. The state’s Guiding Our Growth initiative is looking to understand what Utahns want in the face of our population explosion. One of the top answers is “To invest in and plan for more parks, recreation, active transportation, and trails.”

Utah’s population has tripled since 1980. It was the fastest-growing state in the country between 2010 and 2020, and could see its population increase by 66% between 2020 and 2060. Of course, one of the reasons for this population growth is that people want to move here. People from around the West, the U.S., and the world are drawn by the economic, social and political attractiveness of the state. Our recent uptick (and continued forecasted growth) is also driven by those seeking to enjoy the beauty of our landscapes and the availability of outdoor activities that are just a short drive away.

However, our economic prosperity and simultaneous population increases put stress upon existing natural resources and infrastructure. It also reduces our per-person availability of public spaces such as lakes, rivers, trails, golf courses, parks and roads. Further, and somewhat paradoxically, our increasing population, robust economic growth and rising real wages dramatically increase the cost of the land, labor and physical capital necessary to improve access to green resources needed for these new Utahns.

In short, we are blessed with prosperity that is partially driven by our quality of life but that simultaneously makes our high quality of life increasingly difficult to maintain.

This is not a particularly rare sort of paradox, but it does require unique and imaginative solutions. In particular, it becomes economically rational to approach the problem of declining relative amounts of public green space by improving access to that space. How do we find more efficient and creative ways to develop or refashion urban or suburban public spaces, and make the most of unexpected green space opportunities that may present themselves?

One of the most obvious, immediate, and perhaps least expensive ways of doing this is by simply improving access to the 38.5 million acres of public land in Utah constituting roughly 71% of our state. This is most easily accomplished by constructing new trail systems, and maintaining existing ones, in both remote areas and in areas proximate to population centers.

State leaders are considering just that. During this legislative season, politicians are considering $100 million dollars for trail construction and maintenance in order to grant enhanced access to the natural majesty of our state. (See Sen. Wayne Harper’s SB185 and the one-time funding for active transportation before the executive appropriations committee.) The “Utah Trail Network” focuses on connecting existing trails that are the easiest for Utahns to access, those running near parks and rivers, and just over the fences of some of our own backyards.

As substantial as $100 million dollars might sound, this expenditure represents quite a bargain. The land in question is typically publicly owned and therefore does not typically require funds to purchase from private landowners. In short, these trails and their expansion represent a relatively low-cost recreational safety valve for our increasing population which could help maintain the quality of life that attracted them to Utah in the first place.

In this spirit, the Utah Foundation is writing a report which addresses the virtues of our state’s trail system along with other elegant solutions to the increasingly obvious shortage of urban and suburban green spaces in Utah as populations rise. These solutions include the selective repurposing of existing publicly owned space (such as the planting of urban orchards and the greening of schoolyards) and enhanced access to and through our state and federal lands.

It is our hope that government and private entities across the state will partner in the embrace of prioritizing green space and optimizing resource allocation to increase access to Utah’s natural character.

Shawn Teigen | The Utah Foundation

Shawn Teigen is president of the Utah Foundation.

John Salevurakis

John Salevurakis, Ph.D., is a research analyst for the Utah Foundation.