By Tom Diegel
Utah Adventure Journal readers are likely aware of Mountain Accord, the coalition of dozens of formal stakeholders across the Wasatch Front and Back that came together three years ago to attempt to hammer out a resolution that would address the many interests and pressures on the Central Wasatch (see the Winter 14-15 UAJ). In the last year and a half since the formal Accord was signed there has not been as much public involvement, but there has been a lot of work done and much progress has been made, although it is far from being finalized.
One of the fundamental problems with the Mountain Accord is that – like its predecessors – by itself it had no “teeth” to create anything binding. However, there was a strategy to change that: formal, federal legislation. The idea of Mountain Accord was to get virtually all of the players together to try to hammer out their differences, and then get one of Utah’s congressional delegation to take the resulting agreements to Washington and get a bill in front of Congress to vote on, with the assumption that if Utahns brought up a Utah-centric bill that was generated from a coalition of historically-adversarial entities that it would have little resistance to passage. Therefore, over the last 1.5 years Mountain Accord has been endeavoring to literally create a bill that could be presented to Congress to formalize what has been done, and that culminated in Rep. Jason Chaffetz introducing HR 5718: the “Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act” this past July. It was originally scheduled to have a hearing with the Natural Resource committee (chaired by Utah’s Rob Bishop) on September 26th, but the hearing was abruptly and inexplicably cancelled. However, in September a small delegation of Save Our Canyons’ Carl Fisher, Salt Lake City’s new public utilities director Laura Briefer, and Mountain Accord’s Laynee Jones and Megan Nelson went to Washington to twist some arms and successfully came away with a hearing scheduled for November 15th.
What does having a bill passed mean? Essentially it formalizes the “order” from Congress to the Forest Service – and everyone else – to make a lasting deal. There are several key aspects to Wasatch recreators:
- The 8000-acre Grandeur Peak/Mt Aire Wilderness will be created. This is basically the land on both sides of the Mill Creek/Parley’s canyon ridgeline between the peaks.
- There will be a White Pine Special Management area. This is basically has wilderness protection with the glaring exception of Wasatch Powderbird’s helicopters being able to fly there.
- There is an attempt to shift the Mount Olympus and Twin Peaks Wilderness’ boundaries upward to facilitate a mountain bike-able Bonneville Shoreline Trail expansion (a challenging task: to follow the best contours will affect “too much” wilderness, which will affect the bike-ability)
- There will be land swaps from and to the ski resorts, and once those are made, the resorts’ boundaries will be permanently fixed relative to public lands (expansion would still be possible onto private lands).
It is this last point that has created the most contention. Here are the potential land swaps and their implications:
- Snowbird will cede control of most of the Superior/Flagstaff/Emma ridgeline, which they currently control. This will mean permanent protection for that zone.
- Solitude will have the ability to apply for a permit to expand onto additional public land downhill from the base of their existing Honeycomb return chairlift to extend that chair down to a better zone for the bottom terminal. This has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of the bottom of Silver Fork Canyon where it meets the bottom of Honeycomb, but the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA)- a group that came together after the opposition to the infamous Ski Link proposal – is working with Solitude to mitigate the effect.
- Deer Valley will cede 430 acres in the Guardsman Pass area to the Forest Service. While promoted as a large impediment to the development of Ski Utah’s One Wasatch connection, it is but one way to connect, with others available.
- Alta will give up their ownership of Devil’s Castle, Baldy, and land at the base of the Emma Ridges up for additional land to develop their base facilities.
A notable absence from this bill is Grizzly Gulch. The WBA has done studies that show that the GG trailhead is the most heavily-used winter trailhead in the range, and it’s not surprising: not only does GG have fine skiing itself, it also provides quick and safe access to a myriad of excellent backcountry, and is thus the keystone of the Central Wasatch backcountry ski terrain. However, in the late 90’s Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) purchased almost the entirety of Grizzly Gulch, and as such they have created a cat skiing operation there, and they would like to also have a chairlift running up to the ridgeline. ASL has been unwilling to put GG on the table for the land exchanges for a variety of reasons, most notably until they get some kind of connection with Big Cottonwood to increase their “bed-base.” As such, the Mountain Accord has said that Alta will not get their base development land and if Salt Lake City Public Utilities has reiterated that without Grizzly Gulch being turned to public land it will refuse ASL’s demands for additional culinary and snowmaking water, thereby severely limiting ASL’s ability for further development. . As of this time, the Grizzly Gulch issue is still at a stalemate.
Another notable exception to the Mountain Accord negotiations is Cardiff Fork. While the Accord and the legislation say that no private lands will be otherwise affected by the land swaps, the fact that Cardiff is physically disconnected from the resorts yet is a dizzying patchwork of public and private land has kept this major drainage in limbo. As a result, some landowners recently filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Mountain Accord in an attempt to gain resolution.
A great thing that has come out of the Mountain Accord process is the creation of an “Environmental Dashboard.” Many people are passionate about preserving what they assume and perceive to be a lot of intrinsic natural value associated with the mountains and riparian areas, but the truth is that there has not been a comprehensive accounting of the area’s actual environmental health. Without that baseline it’s impossible to predict or measure the impact of our use/abuse, so the program will focus on generating a better understanding of the range’s ecosystems, plants, wildlife, air, soil, and water quality.
Notably, the elephant in the room is Vail; the new owners of Park City Mountain Resort have created the largest resort in the country in combining it with The Canyons just over the ridge from Big Cottonwood Canyon and are well-known for their penchant for going big, but Vail has been notably absent for the entirety of the Mountain Accord process. Additionally, there was an early attempt to include American Fork Canyon in the process and include AF lands in the swap, but there was no Utah County representation and a quickly organized band of Utah County citizens kept the lands out of Mountain Accord. Subsequently Snowbird leapt into the void with bold plans to develop Mary Ellen Gulch; one drainage downcanyon from their existing operations in Mineral Canyon.
Throughout the Mountain Accord process there was much talk of a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon and a tunnel between LCC and Big Cottonwood Canyon. However, after news broke that there were taxpayer-funded UTA trips to Switzerland to study trains and plans to bring some of the train development companies/technologies to Utah before the discussions had really gotten off the ground, the plans waned. Additionally, because of the cost, complexity, and controversy surrounding these two concepts the legislation now says that future transit options will be considered; therefore, while nothing is ruled out, nothing will happen in the short term. Instead Mountain Accord is working with UTA for enhanced ski bus service, and the WBA is also working with UDOT to create more dispersed user-friendly services as well.
As with any major negotiations between parties that have opposing views the willingness to compromise is critical, and much about the Accord and the legislation has various parties concerned. But what is driving all of the stakeholders towards grudging acceptance is the potential for finality. The last 40 years has seen the ski resorts and developers independently grasping for opportunities and either getting supported by or fought against by various constituencies, and the hope is that the legislation will be the latest step towards creating a less-contentious and more predictable, and sustainable future for the Central Wasatch.