Central Wasatch Comission Update

What’s Happening with the CWC?

By Tom Diegel

If you play in the Wasatch Mountains at all, you know that you are most definitely not alone in your enthusiasm. From resort skiing to backcountry skiing, hiking to mountain biking to climbing, scenic drives to scenic strolls, you know that all of these activities are wildly popular in the Wasatch. Many businesses rely on those visitors for their livelihoods, and the literally thousands of people who live in the canyons are even more acutely aware of the hordes than you are, since they deal with the crowds on a daily basis.  Add to this the fact that Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood creeks are the primary sources of drinking water for a million people, and it becomes a complex equation.  Balancing the disparate needs and managing the visitation has been a struggle for decades the last 30 years, but it’s now possible that we are inching forward to some resolutions.  

Over six years ago, the “Mountain Accord” process was initiated with hundreds of stakeholders involved.  After hundreds of meetings, the Accord itself was created and signed by most of the stakeholders in July 2015.   While the Accord itself was a non-binding document, it set the stage for two more important developments:  formal legislation to be introduced by Congress that would codify much of what the Accord outlined, and the creation of an interagency committee called the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) that would shepherd the implementation of the goals of the Mountain Accord process, both at the federal and local levels.  The CWC’s executive director is former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, and the commission itself is formed by ten key leaders from Salt Lake and Summit counties.  There is also a 35 member “Stakeholders Group” that is in place to advise the CWC.  

It has taken a while to gather momentum, but the CWC is now making some progress.  Utah’s 3rd District Rep John Curtis is keen to introduce the wordy Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation bill to Congress, which would implement many of the key points of the Mountain Accord. The CWC has spent the last several months trying to work out the kinks to tighten up the language in the bill. 

One of the major kinks that needed to be addressed was that Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) decided that since the bill does not include their desired transit solutions of a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon and a tunnel to Big Cottonwood, they were going to pull the portions of Grizzly Gulch that they own out of the land exchanges that are envisioned by the Accord and move forward on putting chairlifts in Grizzly and connecting to Big Cottonwood. Further, ASL has indicated that would need to reserve the ability to get their special use permit (with the US Forest Service) for avalanche control on the adjacent Patsy Marley area changed to a resort extension, which would in turn allow ASL to put lifts on Patsy Marley itself. After several meetings in an effort to find a resolution to this problem, the CWC unanimously agreed to exclude ASL from the bill and further agreements. This in turn meant that the CWC has had to spend a lot of its resources trying to figure out how that will play out in the congressional bill.  

With a great snow year in Utah, wintertime canyon users faced many days of the dreaded “Red Snake” of traffic in both Cottonwood Canyons.  Many grumpy recreators had plenty of time to wonder what UDOT has been doing to address the nightmarish traffic, and the answer is: UDOT has been busy.  At entrances to ASL, Snowbird, and Brighton UDOT has put in traffic flow devices to enable efficient exits from the parking lots to the highways, and a traffic-calming device has been installed at Alta Central.   Under consideration for the near future is an actual merge lane for cars coming from 9400 south onto Wasatch Blvd at the mouth of LCC, possible high-tech tolling options for LCC, snowsheds for the avalanche paths in LCC, additional lanes, and other transit options, including increased bus service. Parking near the mouths of both canyons to accommodate new transit options/solutions poses a major challenge: much of the land is already developed, and the remaining available land is high value. And while many people look to the rock quarry near the base of BCC as an option for a large multi-modal transit center, that quarry is still in use and its future is still in questions.   

UDOT’s efforts of late have focused mostly on LCC due to a $68M grant from the state legislature, which must be spent on LCC-related improvements only. UDOT is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement with regard to LCC, and but they have come to the realization that LCC’s traffic issues need to be addressed congruently with those of BCC, so together improving the transportation/traffic in both canyons is being analyzed under a broader moniker of CC TAP:  Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Action Plan.

While this all seems a bit like alphabet soup, figuring out how to move people up and down the canyons efficiently is one thing, but a larger, more important question comes to mind: Can the canyons actually accommodate those people?  Although the US skier-day visits have remained flat for the last 40 years, Utah’s share has risen slightly. A good snow year and new, affordable multi-resort passes fueled some this growth, which led Utah to set a new record for skier visits this past season. In addition, summertime use is exploding: trailheads in both canyons overflow to dangerous roadside parking even on weekdays, and even though ASL does little to attract summertime visitors, their downcanyon neighbor Snowbird hosts as many/more visitors for their Oktoberfest parties as they do in the winter. All of this intensive use has had some people asking: “what is the capacity of these canyons?”  Carrying Capacity is a concept that is being discussed a lot these days relative to the famously-crowded national parks, including Utah’s own Zion and Arches. The CWC is taking this concept seriously by enlisting help from the University of Utah’s Recreation Management department and the US Forest Service.  Given the myriad of issues/stakeholders/perspectives associated with the Wasatch, the concept of carrying capacity in our small range is proving to be very complex so far, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how this path moves forward.  

The CWC meets on the first Monday afternoon of each month in Cottonwood Heights and the meetings are open to the public if you’d like to get involved.  In the meantime, as you continue to recreate in our fair little range, keep in mind the huge array of users and account for them as you get out on your own Wasatch adventures.  

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