Opinion: The Forest Service is failing Utahns — and its original mission

The agency had the foresight to protect watersheds, wilderness and access for all people in all seasons, as is their responsibility as an agency. What changed?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic at a standstill in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023.

Things are changing in the Wasatch Mountains’ Cottonwood Canyons. Winter weather is becoming more radical, with windier, wetter and wilder storms filling the Wasatch’s iconic alpine crags and quiet glades. In between these storms, long spells of high pressure degrade the snow quality and fill the valleys with pollution. Feast and famine snow cycles are driving skiers crazy. This combination of more people and weird weather forces a mad panic for parking, first chair and fresh tracks. These changes are hard to ignore.

As the Wasatch’s users and managers struggle with traffic, parking, land use and environmental issues, I’ve started asking a simple question: Who is in charge? After a multi-year planning process, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has chosen a transit plan. Ski areas and towns in the Cottonwoods are operating their own fee-based parking. But, there is no cohesion and the public is left scratching their heads.

The Central Wasatch sees 3.2 million annual visits, compared to 1.8 million at Arches National Park. In a place with so many visitors, the United States Forest Service (Forest Service), tasked with its management, is noticeably absent.

Since its inception in 1906, the Forest Service has been charged with protecting the Wasatch Mountains’ important resources. In 2003, they updated the Forest Plan for the Wasatch Cache to address the needs of the forest. The plan outlines management for recreation, development, protection and access. In the nearly-500-page document, they provided a pragmatic path for this balance. From the document: “Mass transit will be commonly used during winter, reducing crowding and increasing safety for users of the canyons. The Forest Service will work actively with other parties to explore options for reducing private vehicular use within these Canyons.

They had the foresight to protect watershed, wilderness and access for all people in all seasons, as is their responsibility as an agency. Again from the Forest Service’s 2003 plan: “Opportunities that build on the unique values of public land are featured over those that are focused on the constructed environment. Activities that facilitate public understanding, appreciation, and respect for land and natural resources will be encouraged.”

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service had an optimistic vision for the Wasatch. Sadly, that vision has been largely sidelined or ignored due to underfunding and the unraveling of the 2016 Mountain Accord. It is time for them to take a hard look at what is happening in the mountains on the trails and to revisit their own plans. Without a Forest Service-led, multi-agency, regional plan, the pressure on our mountains will only get worse.

In the void of a cohesive plan, other canyon stakeholders have taken it upon themselves to address issues. Tools like private parking permits are only working for a specific set of canyon users. Recently, reports came in that a few parking spots dog-eared for backcountry skiers were being used by Alta patrons waiting for the ski area to open. Backcountry skiers counted 60 cars, dozens of resort skiers sat in their cars for two hours, engines purring, idling in the dark while backcountry skiers that paid for early morning spots were forced to move down the line.

This is unacceptable.

Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton have the right to manage their own parking lots, but as they operate on Forest Service land, they have to respect all users. Parking and transport cannot only cater to individuals who are paying for lift tickets. People want to snowshoe, ski tour and splitboard into the mountains away from the bustle of the city and they should be able to. Finding this serenity in the mountains is becoming difficult at best, and impossible at worst. The Forest Service must provide access to public lands.

Instead of creating fair and equitable solutions to transit and parking, UDOT, the Utah Transit Authority and the resorts have spearheaded plans like the proposed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Like third-party parking, this wildly expensive project only benefits a portion of people using the Cottonwood Canyons. Alongside the parking permits and the gondola, piecemeal programs like new fees for public trailheads and reduced bus service are confusing and unfair to the general public.

We need the Forest Service to step up and govern all of the entities, agencies and municipalities that have a stake in these mountains, and to create a sweeping governance plan for them. The 2003 plan can be a roadmap for that. But, we are well beyond their 10- to 15-year scope. The Forest Service must revisit it. And our legislature needs to provide funding and framework for an updated plan.

While we wait in long lines of red brake lights, compete for limited canyon parking and billion dollar budgets are thrown around, I hope that the Forest Service will once again be a voice for a fair and sustainable Wasatch.

Jack A. Stauss

Jack A. Stauss lives in Salt Lake City, where he skis, works for an environmental organization and enjoys the amazing landscape and community of the Wasatch Front.

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