Photo: Taylor Ballam/Utah Open Lands
At a time when the fight to save public land stirs over Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, another campaign to save 1,350 acres of prized, high-altitude land several hundred miles north is coming to a head.
This time, the tools are not letter-writing and phone calls to lawmakers thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. Rather, an alliance of local government, citizens, and nonprofits has risen to take action on their own—with their pocketbooks.
To save Bonanza Flat, a sprawl of forests, lakes, and peaks in the center of the Wasatch, Utahns have rallied contributions ranging from $25 donations to a $25 million bond passed overwhelming by the voters of Park City last November.
The campaign must have $38 million by June 15 to purchase Bonanza Flat from the bank that acquired the land after its property owners foreclosed. The transaction will be the first step toward a conservation easement and preserving the land as the ecology, wildlife habitat, and place of refuge for recreationists it is today, forever. If they fail, it is almost certain a developer will acquire the land. Plans have already been outlined to build a complex of homes, condos, commercial units, and even a golf course.
With less than three weeks until the deadline, there is still an outstanding gap of $2.6 million left to fund.
"This is prime terrain at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon,” says Chris Adams, a board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, one nonprofit of many that prioritized fundraising for Bonanza Flat for the last five months. “Great backcountry skiing, great hiking in the summer, great potential for mountain biking. It's beautiful up there…We want this to be preserved and protected as it is. We don't want to see this developed."
In the Wasatch, where land is a patchwork of public and private ownership and a population of 1.9 million lives in close proximity, open space does not equate to public land and permanent conservation. Management of lands is a constant balance between public access and preserving habitat, and private land is even more susceptible to development because of the state's conservative ownership rights. The equation is complicated, and nearly 200 stakeholders are invested to solve it under the Mountain Accord, which will eventually draft a plan to preserve the Wasatch for the future. (The Mountain Accord is currently on hold until local governments elect a commission to implement the next steps.)
"Protecting Bonanza Flat has been on our radar since back in 1990," said Wendy Fischer, executive director of Utah Open Lands, a land trust established that same year, a time when Summit County was one of the fastest growing counties in the country. A 20-minute drive from Park City, a 30-minute drive from Salt Lake City, with conifer and alpine forests and lakes, Fischer calls Bonanza Flat a "universal landscape" and the "heart of the Wasatch." If you have skied Brighton, Park City, or Deer Valley, you've no doubt seen Bonanza Flat. It's the wedge on the backside of the three ski resorts, connecting ridgelines to meadows. And while it is indeed mostly flat, it holds great skiing in the bowls, glades, and ridges on 10,420 and Clayton peaks. Bonanza Flat, Adams emphasized, is also integral to keeping the balance between resort and backcountry skiing in the Wasatch.
"There's just no question. Once these landscapes are protected, they are priceless and you'll never be able to put a number on this property again,” says Fischer. “Once it's developed it's gone. What it's going to mean for future generations, we can only glimpse.”
Bonanza Flat was property owned by the Talisker Family (a name you may recognize from another episode between Canyons, Park City, and Vail a few years ago) and when they foreclosed, Wells Fargo absorbed ownership. Wells Fargo has since been looking for a buyer. "We don't know all of the details of the developer, but there were several offers that were made to Wells Fargo," says Fischer.
The town of Park City, which has a precedent of buying land for open space, was immediately interested in Bonanza Flat for its proximity and impact on the watershed. "Where most mountain towns are surrounded by forest service land, Park City is 100 percent private land," says Park City councilman Andy Beerman. Last November, the town put on the ballot a $25 million bond to buy the land, which voters approved overwhelmingly by more than 70 percent. After the bond was approved, Wells Fargo gave Park City the opportunity to purchase the property for conservation—so long as they came up with another $13 million. That launched a fundraising campaign on January 12. The town has already pushed their deadline with the bank back from March to June.
Because of its transcendence, the Save Bonanza Flats campaign has received near universal support. Summit County contributed $5.75 million. Salt Lake Public Utilities pledged $1.5 million—Bonanza Flat extends into their watershed. Wasatch County said they would give $25,000 (they also have told nonprofits their contribution was the absorption of a potential revenue loss by not developing Bonanza Flat). And nine nonprofits—recreational groups and land trusts alike—have stepped forward to lead intensive, grassroots fundraising efforts.
A local artist on Main Street in Park City hosted a sale with proceeds to benefit Save Bonanza Flats. Social media and events at local bars have raised thousands. Students at a local preschool raised $250, which was matched by their teachers and again matched by the Summit Land Conservancy for a total donation of $1,000. The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has estimated more than 450 people have donated to them for Bonanza Flat. They hosted a film festival and a ride-the-shuttle event at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon to raise money.
"The reason people come to Park City is because of the land and the open space," says Caitlin Willard, who works for the Summit Land Conservancy. "Every single thing that we can do to get money, we're doing it."
To get the last $2.6 million, Fischer said they are "pulling out all the stops" and talking to a couple different foundations nationally and locally for support. "We'll beg as much as we need to to do this," says Fischer. "The reality is it just can't fail. We've come so close."
In a 5-4 vote in March that was along party lines, the Salt Lake County Council voted against a $3 million contribution to help purchase Bonanza Flat. However, some are still holding out hope that Salt Lake County will come through at the last hour.
The June 15 deadline is firm, and the Save Bonanza Flats alliance must come to Wells Fargo with $38 million to save the property from being paved over. But this fight is about much more than development. Land conservation and stewardship is also key in the fight against climate change.
As the planet's temperature rises, the snowpack—and one of the largest reservoirs of water—will disappear in the lower elevations, which makes places at higher elevations, like Bonanza Flat, an even more valuable sanctuary for snow. Curbing development eases pressure on limited resources and ensures a snowpack in the mountains—not heated driveways. Fischer estimated that a conservation easement on Bonanza Flat would yield an annual water savings of 61 million gallons.
What's more, places like Bonanza Flat are avenues to environmentalism. So long as the public has access to wild land, they will understand firsthand why it is worth saving.
"I have heard time and time again from folks, they are worried about climate change," says Fischer. "They are worried about what it means for recreation and what it means for sustainability for themselves and their kids. And for whatever reason, they feel they don't have the ability to make a difference. That they're not being listened to. This is one place that they feel they can make a difference."