Few patches of mountains in North America are more beloved, or more fought over, than the Wasatch Range above Salt Lake City.
About 5.7 million people annually visit the central Wasatch Range—an area that’s bounded by the Salt Lake Valley to the west; the greater Park City area to the east; Little Cottonwood Canyon to the south; and Interstate 80 (Parley’s Canyon) to the north—to climb, bike, hunt, backcountry ski, and ride the lifts at the area's four world-class ski areas. That's one-third more visitors than go to Yellowstone National Park every year.
But the crowding of “Was-Angeles” means conflict. Backcountry skiers have jostled for elbow room with heli-skiers. Ski areas have wanted to string up lifts to connect the Wasatch resorts. The cities below demand unsullied alpine watersheds for the 500,000 people who get their water from the high peaks. Everybody wants less traffic.
The wrangling has gone on for decades.
Now a solution may be at hand, in the form of a bill before Congress—but your visit to Alta or Brighton could feel a little different as early as this winter.
If any lands bill can move through a sclerotic Congress populated by many GOP members skeptical of federal ownership of public lands, this is it. “This is about a local, consensus-driven plan for us to deal with federal lands,” says Laynee Jones, program director for Mountain Accord.
A group called Mountain Accord worked for two years to hash out a deal to protect these mountains from further development while accommodating different uses. It’s been a “high-wire act,” the group says: The accord had some 200 stakeholders and experts, from the Forest Service to ski resorts to environmentalists. The process included 23 open houses and thousands of public comments.
On November 15, the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act of 2016 (H.R. 5718) had a hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Among other things, the bill proposes to:
- Include about 80,000 acres of public land—high ridgelines, meadows, cirques, and snowy bowls—in a new Conservation and Recreation Area, which is a new designation.
- Add about 8,000-acres of wilderness in the central Wasatch, including making the new Grandeur Peak Wilderness Area, which would nearly border Salt Lake City.
- Fix the boundaries of the ski resorts that operate on public land at their current size and not permit future expansion on public lands.
“The public said, ‘Look, the balance that we have up there is just right.’ And the ski areas said, ‘We agree,’” said Laynee Jones, program director for Mountain Accord.
To entice the resorts to forgo expansion, the bill would authorize the Forest Service to trade for more than 2,000 acres of private land that the resorts own high up in the Wasatch—land that people now often use for sports such as backcountry skiing. Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, for instance, owns most of iconic Mt. Superior across the road from the lifts. (If you’ve ever skied Snowbird, you’ve stared into the face of Mt. Superior, which is considered one of the 50 classic ski descents in North America.)
In return for trading these lands to the public, the resort would get some additional lands at its base that are currently under the Forest Service's jurisdiction, including land now being used as parking lots, Bob Bonar, Snowbird’s president and general manager, told Outside. Traded lands wouldn’t necessarily be developed, Mountain Accord’s Jones says. They might be public lands that already were leased to the resort and lie beneath existing structures.
Any trades would undergo federal environmental review and an appraisal process, says Bonar.
Carl Fisher, executive director of the group Save Our Canyons, which has fought hard against additional development of the canyons, said he initially had been “nervous” about participating in Mountain Accord, given the controversy of public lands issues in Utah. While Fisher said his group would have liked to see more wilderness designated in the Wasatch, he considers the bill a decent compromise. “What you’re gonna notice is the lack of things happening to the landscape that will change it forever.” Now the ski areas are protected, he said—but so, too, are the world-class backcountry, nature, and watershed.
The biggest change for visitors, which will go into effect as soon as this winter: less traffic.
The tight canyons just above the Salt Lake Valley are jammed with cars. There are about 7,000 parking spots at the top of Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Time was, they might fill up only a few days each winter. Now they are full about 40 days per winter, Jones said. And the crush is happening year-round. “The summertime use in these canyons in the next 10 years will probably exceed the wintertime use."
Mountain Accord's other big emphasis, unrelated to the bill in Congress, was finding solutions to this transportation problem. Starting this winter, Mountain Accord, the resorts, and Utah Transit Authority will encourage skiers and snowboarders to stop at seven big park-and-ride lots down in the valley. Expanded bus service will run every fifteen minutes during peak hours up to Cottonwood Canyon resorts—Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude. Those resorts also are working with Protect Our Winters (POW) to launch a carpool program, with incentives. To encourage carpooling at Snowbird, for instance, carpoolers will get preferred parking at the ski hill. Frequent carpoolers get lift ticket discounts, like a frequent-flier program, said Snowbird’s Bonar.
Even if the bill passes and several land trades occur, it is possible that an interconnection among some of the Central Wasatch ski resorts could still occur, using private lands not involved in any trade. In fact, Mountain Accord was born in part to address such threats. In 2011, the owners of then-Canyons Ski Resort (which has since joined with Park City) proposed building a gondola across the Wasatch Crest to connect to Solitude Ski Resort. SkiLink withered under public scrutiny, but the idea spurred other resorts to propose ONE Wasatch, the interconnection of several ski resorts in the area.
Several people said they liked the bill’s odds of becoming law. If any lands bill can move through a sclerotic Congress populated by many GOP members skeptical of federal ownership of public lands, the Wasatch bill is it. “This is about a local, consensus-driven plan for us to deal with federal lands,” and that’s appealing to Utah’s politicians, said Jones.
Mountain Accord will become the Central Wasatch Commission, a governmental agency responsible for implementing the other changes.
Correction: This story has been updated to note that if the bill passes it would not necessarily end attempts to link most of the Wasatch resorts into a grand, Euro-style mega-resort.