Save Our Canyons’ goal with the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act (CWNCRA), as it has been for all of our work over the decades, is to protect the Wasatch from increasing development pressures while also balancing the growing demand for uses like hiking, mountain biking, and skiing. Click here for a helpful write up of Save Our Canyons position on trails, specifically mountain biking trails, in the Wasatch. Here are Save Our Canyons’ concerns relating to White Pine and Alta!
This isn’t about being anti-biking or pro-biking, as Gale said, it isn’t about hobbies, it’s about protecting the quality of this landscape for years to come. Save Our Canyons supports mountain biking and the 344 miles of bike trails currently found along the Wasatch. It’s because we support biking that we’re working to adjust some wilderness boundaries to allow for the completion of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and to protect the continued use Little Cottonwood’s Quarry Trail. For a group that sees wilderness designations as the highest form of protection against development possible, our willingness to change wilderness boundaries is no small matter. We’re supporting these adjustments because making these changes to accommodate a completed BST adds over 50 miles of biking trails, making the BST bike-able from the north to the south ends of the valley. However, this isn’t the case for Little Cottonwood’s White Pine area.
White Pine is one of the Wasatch’s most glorious and relatively untouched alpine areas. Formalizing White Pine as a mountain biking trail stands to induce use at an already overcrowded trailhead, endanger hikers, and degrade this alpine area with a proliferation of trails. Legitimizing White Pine as mountain biking route will induce more use in fragile high alpine areas as bikers look to expand beyond white pine by dropping into Snowbird or Maybird and vice versa. In addition to having a possible negative impact on high alpine areas, legitimizing White Pine as a mountain biking route also stands to endanger the hikers who brave this steep trail. According to the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), with the interest of safety in mind, mixed-use trails (those enjoy simultaneously by both hikers and bikers) should not exceed a trail grade of 15% for the simple reason that controlling a bike and limiting speed becomes pretty difficult at any higher grade. IMBA counts any trail exceeding a 17% grade as a very difficult black diamond trail. The White Pine trail features grades up to 26% and is incredibly popular with hikers, often to the point of being packed. Populating this well-loved trail with mountain bikers careening at breakneck speeds fighting to maintain control on a shared-use trail with a grade 11% higher than is recommended is an accident waiting to happen. One that will undoubtedly result in decades worth of future headaches and conflict as these user groups collide – both metaphorically, and, likely on White Pine’s difficult steep and variable terrain, physically.
For the past year Save Our Canyons has wrestled with Alta. Whether over their dissatisfaction with the Mountain Accord because the train and tunnel they’ve wanted hasn’t materialized, their proposal for a tram on Baldy, or their wanton destruction of precious wetlands which earned them a searing reprimand from Salt Lake City and Sandy public utilities, Alta has finally hit their last straw.
We’ve negotiated, we’ve trusted, but now in the final moments, Alta is trying to change the rules. They’re pulling land off the table, Grizzly Gulch, land that’s been central to negotiations throughout Mountain Accord and which has been beloved by the public long before it was owned by Alta.
The last few years of negotiations over the land exchanges were conditioned on ski resorts giving up their valuable private pristine and non-developed land outside of their resort boundaries in exchange for desirable, and already impacted, public land within their boundaries. Far from being a giveaway, these exchanges need to abide by a concise and transparent Forest Service review process ensuring that the monetary values of the lands exchanged is equal. In Alta’s case, the land to be exchanged was Grizzly Gulch. Unfortunately, Alta has decided to unilaterally reconfigure their land exchange to no longer protect important areas like Grizzly Gulch, opting instead to try consolidating their ownership of lands to maximize development and minimize environmental protections.
That’s why Save Our Canyons and our allies are asking the Central Wasatch Commission to drop Alta from Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Act and proceed without them.
And before the few remaining Alta apologists can begin to muster an anemic defense of Alta doing as they want with their own property, remember the history of Alta Ski Lifts and Grizzly Gulch:
Soon after purchasing Grizzly Gulch in the early 2000’s, Alta petitioned to annex the area out of Salt Lake County to the town of Alta. At the time, Save Our Canyons speculated Alta’s motivation for annexing the land was because Salt Lake County’s Foothills Canyons and Overlay Zone was too effective at protecting the area and that the county’s general plan would never have allowed Alta to build lifts and develop in Grizzly. In 2002 SOC accused Alta of wanting to move jurisdiction for Grizzly from the county to the town of Alta because they significantly less restrictive environmental protections – to this day the town of Alta still lacks a ridgeline protection ordinance, something which Salt Lake County has had on the books – thanks to Save Our Canyons – for decades. Responding to SOC’s criticism, Alta stated in an Dec. 7, 2002 Deseret News article that Grizzly Gulch was “not purchased with the idea of increasing the size of the ski area” and that “the land is used by backcountry skiers to access more remote areas beyond Alta, and the resort will do nothing to restrict that access.” In another article just a week later, once the annexation allowing Alta to escape Salt Lake County’s more stringent protections in favor of the town of Alta’s less protective ordinances went through, Alta Ski Resort once again said to the town council: “We didn’t seek out and buy this land because we wanted to do something with it” and “backcountry skiers still will be able to use the slope to access more remote areas beyond Alta.” Fifteen years ago, like Tiresias from Greek myth who was doomed to see the future but destined to never be listened to by her contemporaries – Save Our Canyons scoffed, commenting about Grizzly “will it be developed in the future? Once you get a lift up, you don’t move it.”
Fast forward to 2018, when after years of deliberation to permanently protect Grizzly, Alta’s new manager Mike Maughn sends a letter (LINK) to the Central Wasatch Commission pulling the protection of Grizzly Gulch off the table. Maughn’s letter is a stark and telling contrast to the promises made by his predecessor in 2002 when Alta was doing everything possible to remove Grizzly out from under the county’s protective zoning ordinances prohibiting new lifts and development. Where once Alta promised benevolent land management, no ski resort expansion and continued access, Alta has now done an about-face choosing to contradict these earlier promises. Their new stance laid out in Maughn’s letter to the Central Wasatch Commission is that Grizzly Gulch “…was purchased as an area the ski area could expand into if the demand for developed skiing continued to increase” and that it’s necessary to pull protections for Grizzly because “Alta Ski Area has decided to preserve Grizzly Gulch as an area to accommodate additionally developed skiing.”
Maughn is more than contradicting earlier statements, he is flat out showing Alta’s earlier promises to be lies intended to do little more than gain the public’s trust in order to allow Alta Ski Resorts to successfully shop around political jurisdictions until they could find the one who’s laxness was most accommodating to their future development plans.
As Gale pointed out so many years ago, to meaningfully protect these mountains we need to be looking out 100 years from now and 100 beyond that. After all, “It’s the land itself, folks, no our hobbies!”