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Big Changes Brewing in the Wasatch

What Utah’s Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act means for skiers

PHOTO: Erik Hostetler

Utah's Wasatch Mountains have reached a milestone in conservation with recent federal legislation. After two years of locally driven consensus-building between federal, state, and local officials; private landowners; environmental organizations; recreation and other interest groups, the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act (HR 5718)—a product of the Mountain Accord—received its legislative hearing on November 15, 2016, the week following the Presidential election, by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

If passed, the bill will be a cornerstone of conservation regarding what the Wasatch will look like for generations to come. HR 5718 preserves approximately 80,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service Land, including Salt Lake's watershed, wildlife habitat, and scenic ridgelines. The bill also permanently fixes ski resort boundaries on U.S. Forest Service Land and authorizes land exchanges from ski resorts—swapping private property atop ridgelines and slopes for land at the base. The land swaps will cluster future developments and preserve the mountain environment and backcountry terrain.

It's a long process with no clear date set, but executives of The Mountain Accord are confident in its progress, and are planning the next steps of implementation at the local level.

The progress achieved is noteworthy, however the hearing was tumultuous. Tom McClintock (R—Calif.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, opened the hearing by citing a recent failed accord in St. George, Utah, and he pressed those testifying (President of Snowbird Bob Bonar, the mayor of Sandy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Transit Authority, and local environmental nonprofit Save Our Canyons). However, the panel of testimony responded with a level of bipartisanship that resonated the bill's importance.

"We established a level of trust that is unprecedented and we believe in this partnership that we put together," said Bonar.

By no means was the hearing the end of HR 5718's journey. The day on Capitol Hill was just a starting point. "What needs to happen for the Wasatch doesn't end with this legislation," said Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons. "It begins here with a request to protect the qualities of this landscape that cannot be built or engineered, they can only be protected."

HR 5718 is scheduled to be reintroduced for the 2017 legislative session, leaving it slated for markup—the committee's process of debate and possible amendments to the legislation. With support across the Utah delegation, yet detached from their Republican platform, the bill is likely to move forward through markup, committee hearings, and eventually toward a vote as Congress kicks off 2017. It's a long process with no clear date set, but executives of The Mountain Accord are confident in its progress, and are planning the next steps of implementation at the local level with the development of the Central Wasatch Commission, which will implement the actions outlined in the Accord.

If you need a refresher on how a bill gets passed…

What's in the bill?

Within the legislation of HR 5718 are the fine details of the land trades, consisting of acres of land on Mount Superior in Little Cottonwood Canyon, across to Flagstaff, the Emmas, and Grizzly Gulch, to land surrounding Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

"What we're trying to realize through the Mountain Accord has been decades in the making," says Fisher. "It's this rare bipartisan effort in one of the most toxic and hostile political environments this country has ever seen."

Fisher and Save Our Canyons have been strong proponents for limiting development in the canyons and conserving what's left in this small yet heavily used range. And while this legislation creates protection for the Central Wasatch, the Alta land trade of Grizzly Gulch is perhaps the most controversial.

It’s only getting more crowded in the Wasatch. To manage land use in this Utah range, government agencies and nonprofits are taking legislation to Washington DC. PHOTO: Howie Garber

As it's written in the Accord, Alta Ski Lifts Company agrees to proceed with the land exchange, which includes approximately 603 acres of Alta Ski Lifts Company land (including but not limited to Emma Ridge, Grizzly Gulch, and Devil's Castle), in exchange for approximately 160 acres of U.S. Forest Service Land situated at the base of the ski area. Their commitment to the exchange is conditioned upon transit improvements (including a tunnel or other type of connection between Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood Canyon), a 100-room hotel, and eight commercial/retail shops and water shares for the proposed new infrastructure.

General Manager of Alta Ski Area Onno Wieringa says negotiations are still underway for Grizzly Gulch and he has been clear that if they receive the right package they'll trade the land.

"Conceptually we think the conservation recreation area was proposed so that the land trade lands wouldn't be governed the same way normal forest service lands are governed. Then it blossomed into what it is currently, a trade-off for support for transportation," says Wieringa. "The wilderness and conservation was part of a quid pro quo to get the environment folks onboard."

Preserving the Backcountry and Stopping One Wasatch

The potential of Grizzly Gulch being traded for bi-canyon transit connections or a year round base-to-base lift has been rattling the environmental and backcountry community. Yet as Fisher explains, "the legislation creates protection of Grizzly Gulch that didn't exist there yesterday [through HR 5718]. If they want to build that lift we fundamentality disagree with them and we'll bring the fight to the proper venue, but fighting a local land use process with a federal land bill is inappropriate."

What is One Wasatch?

Fisher and Save Our Canyons aren't the only organization staking their claim for limiting development in the canyons. The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has emerged as the grassroots voice in Utah for larger organizations such as Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, and Winter Wildlands. For them, HR 5718 serves as a vehicle to accomplish the conservation of backcountry terrain, but they are reluctant to claim victory prematurely.

"I think the legislation would be great," notes Chris Adams a Wasatch Backcountry Alliance board member and lawyer. "Protecting all this land adjacent to a city with a million people is an amazing accomplishment." Adams is pleased that the bill fixes the resort boundaries, but explains any resort expansion outside of U.S. Forest Service Land (on private land that perhaps doesn't get traded), comes at the backcountry community's loss.

"The number one thing that gets people [from our community] completely pissed off, is this interconnect." Just a few weeks ago The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance proactively launched their Stop Interconnect website: StopInterconnect.org.

While the battle over an interconnect always seems to loom in the Wasatch. What is certain is that The Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act is the strongest foothold the environmental and backcountry skiing community has ever had. It's a cornerstone for preserving the Central Wasatch for years to come and perhaps may solve the powder day traffic jams.