How you can help protect Utah’s open space and recreation

Sponsored: Utah’s open spaces and recreational opportunities offer world-class reprieve for residents and visitors alike.

(Guiding our Growth, sponsored) How you can help protect Utah's open space and recreation.

Delicate Arch. Angels Landing. Bear Lake. The Golden Spoke trail network. Liberty Park. Utah’s open spaces and recreational opportunities offer world-class reprieve for residents and visitors alike.

As Utah’s natural beauty attracts more residents and visitors, recreation sites can be overwhelmed and new development can crowd out open space. How cities are built will impact access to recreation and open space now and for future generations.

State and local leaders recognize the need to plan for growth and its accompanying challenges, including more crowded recreational areas and shrinking open space. Utahns are encouraged to share suggestions and input about how to address these impacts through the recently launched “Guiding Our Growth: Be Heard” campaign survey.

Open Spaces Close to Home

It’s not just the well-known attractions that provide Utahns breathing space away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Personal health and quality of life are enhanced by easily accessible parks, trails, and open space close to home where families can recreate together and individuals can exercise and gather outdoors.

It’s becoming increasingly important to plan for open space preservation as Utah’s population grows, the demand for housing increases and development expands farther away from city centers.

Open space means different things to different people, especially at the neighborhood level. Some people treasure private outdoor spaces like yards, porches, and patios, while others value parks and trails, and still others want recreation amenities, from pickleball courts and lacrosse fields to baseball diamonds and golf courses. These many interests also compete with agricultural land, natural wildlife habitat, and flood mitigation areas.

In short, there’s a lot of demand for Utah’s open space.

(Guiding Our Growth, sponsored) There’s a lot of demand for Utah's open space.

Planning and Preservation: Weighing the Tradeoffs

The decisions about how to allocate and preserve open space are not easy and require tradeoffs. Does it make sense to build new neighborhoods with large yards if that means parks and trails are farther away or farmland is lost to accommodate those large lots? Should cities encourage constructing more condos and apartments on unused or empty commercial spaces close to city centers rather than on farmland near cities’ edges? Would strict restrictions on new home construction, intended to preserve open space, be worth the significant increase in home prices?

Prioritizing how Utah’s open land is used requires innovative thinking. One option to consider is holistic community planning that incorporates outdoor recreation areas, such as park space or community gathering venues, every time libraries, senior centers, or schools are constructed. Local jurisdictions can also work with farmers to preserve agricultural land by offering alternatives to lucrative development deals through Transfer of Development Rights, agricultural easements, or agricultural protection areas. And simply allowing more dense development, like condos or other housing on smaller lot sizes, can reduce the need for larger-lot housing in other areas within the same market, including agricultural regions.

There are also cases where outdated local zoning and development laws may force builders to create larger lots than demand would require or may prohibit the construction of master-planned communities that would integrate well-thought-out park and trail networks. More flexible zoning can facilitate a variety of development options and help preserve farmland and open space.

Leveraging opportunities for recreation in natural open spaces within urban communities where housing should not be built can be another inventive preservation approach. These areas could be wetlands, fault lines, under transmission corridors, steep slopes, floodplains, and stormwater detention basins. Community leaders can also plan ahead to include trail systems along creeks, canals, and old rail corridors. Murdock Canal Trail, Jordan River Parkway, Virgin River Trail, Denver and Rio Grande Trail Western Rail Trail, and Price River Trail are results of such planning.

Gateway Communities

Utah residents also flock to recreation areas farther from home. As Utah’s population grows, the strain from in-state visitors alone can be overwhelming. State and local leaders must grapple with many questions related to this demand. Are outdoor recreation facilities growing at the same rate as the population? Are the number of camping spots and trail miles per person keeping up with demand? State leaders are working to continuously update Utah’s Outdoor Recreation Plan to deal with these challenges.

It isn’t just Utah residents who enjoy top-notch natural wonders and outdoor recreation opportunities. They also attract increasing attention from those living outside of Utah, which provides an economic advantage over other states. According to a report on Utah’s Travel and Tourism industry in 2021, published by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, those visiting Utah pumped $10.56 billion into the economy in 2021 and necessitated 89,600 jobs in the travel and tourism industry.

(Guiding Our Growth, sponsored) State leaders are working to continuously update Utah’s Outdoor Recreation Plan to deal with these challenges.

However, this growing popularity also comes with challenges.

“Meeting the needs of Utah’s tourists can strain local resources in small, rural towns near tourist destinations, like national parks and ski areas,” said Danya Rumore, director of the Wallace Stegner Center Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and founder of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative. “Fortunately, public policy adjustments can enable them to better profit from tourism activities and address the accompanying challenges.”

These gateway and natural amenity region communities grapple with traffic congestion and parking, as well as the nuances of short-term rentals. To help boost local economies and mitigate tourism impacts, state and local leaders could more clearly encourage and incentivize visitors to buy their groceries, firewood, ice, and other supplies in the areas they visit rather than in their urban hometowns. They could also adjust how hotel taxes are collected and used, providing more resources for roadway maintenance, infrastructure improvements, and more.

Guiding Our Growth

Addressing these challenges requires local planning and statewide support, and Utah leaders are committed to looking ahead, proactively gathering public input, and planning for the future. That’s what “Guiding Our Growth” looks like. It’s having a statewide conversation about the impacts of Utah’s population growth and working together to preserve Utah’s unique quality of life.