By Carl Fisher Executive Director
Over the past eight months, you’ve probably heard a bit about various land exchanges that are part of the Mountain Accord process. More recently, you’ve probably seen or heard about the extra-county land exchange between Snowbird and the US Forest Service that is part of the Mountain Accord’s land exchange and federal designations package. House of cards might be a better term than package, as pieces of a package can shift and move without upsetting the integrity of the structure, in Mountain Accord a shift or omission at this point could make the whole two and a half year effort collapse into a pile of rubble.
Save Our Canyons is being asked whether or not we support this land exchange with Snowbird and the Forest Service. This is a difficult question to answer, because the way the Mountain Accord is structured is as a sum of it’s parts – the question really becomes, will you support the Mountain Accord? This is the question we are trying to answer and it is dependent upon the final outcome of scenarios surrounding Grizzly Gulch, Flagstaff, Big Cottonwood/Park City connections, the Sol-Bright lift, and the language of the federal designations bill that would protect the Central Wasatch from additional development, to name a few. There is an important context playing into what the acceptable outcomes are – the context is mainly a function of history, entangled western land use politics, and political will.
Since the late 90’s, Save Our Canyons has been working to find a way to better protect the Wasatch Range by expanding upon some of our federally designated Wilderness boundaries. We started with a proposal that was approximately 35,000 acres, a portion of which dipped into Utah County (Silver Creek which is an Inventoried Roadless Area and adjacent to Snowbird). Why do we want this protection? Well, the monstrosity on Hidden Peak is one example. That authorization was allowed through exemption of the USFS plan. While plans are developed openly and publicly, they can be changed administratively, at the discretion of the local Forest Supervisor. Wilderness is defined by law; there is predictability in both how the land in managed and a mandate to manage the place to remain in a natural state. Now, Wilderness has been polarized in this state and across the West, but I personally believe Wilderness to be the best tool for protecting the ecological integrity and wildness of a landscape. Hands down. It was once said by Wendell Barry allow me to paraphrase – that we don’t inherit the land from our forefathers, rather we borrow it from the future. Wilderness, not only embodies this land ethic, it helps to realize it. That said, Wilderness is not our only tool for protecting valuable landscapes.
This past year, Save Our Canyons introduced the concept of establishing a Wasatch National Monument. We think that a National Monument is a close second to Wilderness in terms of protection, but it is politically risky as Monuments are defined by their establishing legislation or proclamation and thus vulnerable to weaker protections than those afforded to Wilderness. Wilderness designation, because of the national political and legal structures that preserve it, is the gold standard of protection and preservation.
Save Our Canyons has a history of working to protect these areas that spans both decades and political careers. Much of what we experience today in the Wasatch is a result of either success or failure of Save Our Canyons efforts to protect the range. From the 1990’s working with Congressman Merril Cook and continuing to the recently retired Congressman Matheson, Save Our Canyons has worked across political parties to gain the support of Utah’s congressional delegation to protect these areas. Our congressional reps have stated we needed support of the ski industry in order to achieve the citizens’ conservation goals. The ski industry in turn, Snowbird in particular, demanded land exchanges as the price for their support. We tried to say this was inappropriate, unacceptable and that this was facilitating too much development in a pristine place, but few came to our aid. It seemed as if we were a lone voice screaming in the wilderness, not capital “W”, Wilderness mind you.
Here’s a question: Why, if – as polls tell us – over 90% of Utah’s public wants to see the Wasatch protected, do so many of our State Legislators and Congressional Delegation continue to block and require the attachment of such bitter pills as increased development and canyon urbanization to legislation intended to protect the Wasatch Mountains?
In Utah’s most populous region our valley is blanketed with concrete and asphalt, our air thick with effluents from cars, residences, and industry, shouldn’t we fight to protect and preserve the Wasatch with its wildflowers and pines, moose and marmots, crisp air and clean streams that we all can enjoy? These are not exclusive to one canyon or another but are qualities enjoyed by visitors, across the range. We must protect and preserve the whole place. We cannot divide on these matters.
Recently, the Salt Lake County/Salt Lake City governments told Snowbird they could not hold their Dirty Bird event in Little Cottonwood Canyon because of environmental and watershed concerns. So, rather than canceling the event, they moved the giant waterslide into Mineral Basin. Why? Because unfortunately Utah County has a long history of allowing Snowbird to have their way regardless of impact. Much like a strategic, if not petulant child going to dad when he doesn’t like the answer given by mom, Snowbird is adept at playing Salt Lake County and Utah County against one another. For example, the Hidden Peak Structure was prohibited by Salt Lake County Ordinance and almost shut down. How did Snowbird respond? They moved the development just past the Salt Lake County line and in to Utah County where it was rapidly approved and permits granted.
I think this context is important. While some may feel that Mountain Accord, or Salt Lake County are reigning down on Utah County, Utah County’s lack of protections has had many dire impacts on conditions on the Salt Lake side of the ridge. Allowing Snowbird or anyone else to pit counties against one another is counter-productive for the health and integrality of the larger Wasatch.
Some of Utah’s elected officials have waged a decades long war on the ability of communities and citizens to protect a place for the qualities that are important to us. We have very limited tools at our disposal to protect a landscape, the strongest of these, Wilderness designation and National Monuments, have been overly and unnecessarily politicized, making it exceedingly difficult to realize the conservation of unique areas that deserve preservation for future generations. The willingness of elected officials to only accept conservation with an asterisk attached, that is with the requirement that the further development must accompany conservation is unacceptable. What I believe we can do is to work collaboratively as a people unbounded by arbitrary political boundaries to change that narrative. Save Our Canyons would love nothing more than to see the lands proposed for protection to be protected without further facilitating development.
Partisan politics and political boundaries will only continue to expedite the destruction and fragmentation of place and of the land because they do not abide by the laws of nature, rather bow to the dollar. The juxtaposition is one of short-term gain versus long-term resiliency and conservation. That said, the opportunities we need to achieve our goals rely upon policies and politics to be realized. This is the reality we all work within.
Finally, I think there is an important nuance to the land exchange, which is imperative to understand. The USFS lands that are being exchanged to Snowbird, are subject to Utah County ordinances. The citizens of the region should link arms and develop land use regulations that guarantee our alpine landscapes will not be marred, regardless of land ownership. Save Our Canyons is committed to ensuring the integrity and connectivity of all the Wasatch Mountains are maintained – if not improved. If, per se, these lands were not part of the exchange – there is nothing stopping Snowbird from making application to the US Forest Service to expand their resort via Special Use Permit expansion – as they have already done as part of their 2010 Master Development Plan. Mountain Accord is not giving these lands to Snowbird to do as they will with them. Mountain Accord has specifically said that those lands are not within the jurisdiction of anyone on the Mountain Accord to regulate. The land use authority lies with Utah County, let’s make sure they do right by the land and make decisions in line with the will of the people. We would have dedicated hundreds of hours of staff time and lost many hours of sleep working through the Mountain Accord process if the ultimate goal was more ski resort development in any of our Wasatch Mountains; Big, Little, Parleys, Mill Creek or American Fork.
So, say the house of cards does collapse – that the Mountain Accord and/or American Fork Vision Processes that were designed specifically to facilitate broader public dialog go away. The end result will need even greater public scrutiny and advocacy, because these decisions will return to being made behind closed doors, without the opinions of the public, in a policy arena. This is not about land in your county, or your city, our landscapes cannot survive based on decisions made by arbitrary political lines. I’ve been continually impressed by the transparency of both Mountain Accord and American Fork Vision processes. Mountain Accord as it is further along, has a track record of responding to comments and adjusting on the fly. As someone who has tried to defend the Wasatch at nearly every jurisdictional level that exists, I can assure you that while the ideas in collaborative planning efforts might be threatening, we have to remember that it is better to publicly vet these projects and work to find middle ground than live with the polarizing implications of a judge deciding the fate of the land. I think in the long run, landscape level visioning efforts are better than making last minute pleas before a decision making body.
To achieve any or all of these conservation goals, we need to work together, trust each other and follow a strategy – united we can make this better. We believe the Mountain Accord and American Fork Vision Processes are trying to assist in this end. We have some ideas – Wilderness, National Monument, and ordinance changes – as I’m sure you do as well. Let’s work collaboratively to change the narrative in order to better protect our home and our wild places. That’s what we, Save Our Canyons was formed to do, protect the land that we all love so much, regardless of what political jurisdiction it resides in. To do this we need an army of advocates – elected officials, businesses, community members. So consider this a call to arms. We hope you’ll continue to be a voice in the chorus to protect the Wasatch! We need to stay strong and know that our fight to protect the Wasatch Range is a long one. But an all too necessary one. For if we stop, they will continue. They have everything to gain and we, everything to lose.