March 23, 2015

Mountain Accord; The Most Critical Issues Are Looming for the Wasatch Mountains

Mountain Accord and the Wasatch Mountains - Where we are, where it is, and where it is going

By Carl Fisher

To fully understand and appreciate the Mountain Accord process, you have to understand and appreciate the history of conflict that brought us to this place in time, what in essence convened the Mountain Accord. Too much time and energy has recently been spent worrying about a train versus a bus, and the dialog has enclouded our vision for this important resource. So for a moment, I’d ask you to cast aside your disdain for UTA and modes of public transit and let me impart my view of the landscape in which we are operating. A short three years ago, the Wasatch Mountains were a very different place. Their fate hinged on the rulings of planning commissions, on forest plan amendments or decisions from our local Forest Supervisor, on the defense of our watershed managers, and on the outcry of citizens. As many of us know, the lands inside the Central Wasatch Mountains reside in several different political jurisdictions. If you look solely at the mountainous region – I count at least a dozen. There are a dozen different planning commissions and government agencies all with different visions for a place that is fifteen miles wide and fifty miles long.

Over the years we’ve worked with them one by one, sometimes but not always collaboratively, to have a conservation vision emerge. When cutting up a pie, at some point you cut so many pieces that it all just falls apart. This is how the political jurisdictions of the Wasatch have affected our environment – it’s on the brink of collapse, and development pressures threaten the last wild bastions of the Central Wasatch.

What the Mountain Accord has attempted to do is to bring all these jurisdictions (and a few more) to the table simultaneously to work toward finding resolution. So after engaging over 100 organizations and a number of interested people from the public, Mountain Accord has unveiled a number of visions. Those visions are expressed by the four Interest Groups of Mountain Accord: Environment, Economy, Recreation and Transportation. Each of those groups had areas of strong concurrence and areas of strong disagreement. The job of the Mountain Accord Executive Board has been to put together what they see as a posible path through all of this. That is what brings us to the Proposed Blueprint to Preserve the Central Wasatch.

The “Blueprint” is less of an actual blueprint and more like a menu of options. As when you look at any menu, there are certainly going to be items that you like and others that will leave a bad taste in your mouth. But it’s important to see them all as items that warrant additional study. It is also important to note that the items presented are not final, and we’re relying on your feedback to shape the final outcome. It is not set in stone, it is malleable and awaiting your voice. Make it heard!

So what’s positive and what’s negative in the Proposed Blueprint?

To answer this I’ll put it in terms Good, Bad, and Ugly, categories that are familiar to the readers of the SOC Newsletter. Please note that I have added several new categories including Exceptional, Awesome, and Redundant.

Mountain Accord Proposed Blueprint Comments

Environment Actions

Exceptional – Mountain Accord is proposing to add Federal protections to the public domains of the Central Wasatch Mountains!

Good – Mountain Accord is proposing to strengthen watershed protections in the Wasatch.

Good – Mountain Accord will work to find funding to help local jurisdictions, the USFS, and land trusts acquire property from willing sellers and place those areas in conservation.

Huge – Mountain Accord will mplement an environmental monitoring and reporting program to help understand our impact on the Wasatch Mountains and dentify key criteria to help improve environmental and watershed health and protect wildlife habitat.

Cautiously optimistic – Mountain Accord proposes transportation alternatives that help improve environmental conditions. We need more info to completely understand this, which is the purpose of Phase 2.

Recreation Actions

Long overdue – Mountain Accord will insititute a well funded trails stewardship and maintenance program that will make sure that our trails are promoting a healthy environment and a variety of uses, degrading neither the environment nor the experience.

Good, but – Mountain Accord will protect outstanding recreational opportunities that currently exist on private land owned currently by ski areas, but transferring them into public hands. (But see Cottonwood Negotiation Outcomes for some information about incomplete negotiations).

Great – Mountain Accord will explore a user fee to help establish a funding mechanism to improve and maintain the recreation experience in the Cottonwood Canyons

Good – The members of Mountain Accord’s Recreation System represent a variety of users and activities, all of which contribute to our unparalleled recreational opportunities.

Economy Actions

Exceptional – Mountain Accord will encourage development patterns that preserve community character and quality of life. This means focusing future development in urban areas, which add vibrancy to our local economy while keeping development outside the canyons.

Good, but concerning – With better connectivity comes the potential for increased economic gain. (Further detail is needed to understand what types of connectivity are supported by the public and least impactful to the environment, which is the purpose of Phase 2.)

Good – Mountain Accord will “Prioritize and fund opportunities to protect and enhance the environment.” With emphasis placed on the environment, preservation and increased tourist opportunities just 15 or so minutes from the canyons our year round economy can continue to grow.

Bad – Mountain Accord has a tendency to see the natural environment as a “product” to be marketed for one use. We must first address the health of the ecosystem and the capacity of the region before opening the gates in the name of selling a “unique urban-mountain brand.”

Redundant – The Wasatch Mountains are not
in Europe, nor are they areas of Colorado or California. We are already “unique to the world” and our economy can only remain healthy if the Mountain Accord implements decisions that protect the diverse landscape and uses. Let’s continue to protect what make the Wasatch unique and stop pretending we are something we are not.

Transportation Actions

Good and Long overdue – With the increase in visitation, high pollution levels, parking congestion and impacts to the watershed from single occupancy vehicles, mass transit for the Cottonwood Canyons is well overdue.

Great – By furthering the discussion on bus rapid transit, rail, limiting single occupancy vehicles in the canyons, and increased capacity for park and ride lots outside the canyons Mountain Accord can decrease the need and viability for over-the- snow between-resort connections such as One Wasatch.

Good – According to UDOT, “U-210 (Little Cottonwood) has the highest highway avalanche hazard index of any major road in the U. S.” Mountain Accord’s public transit options may mitigate risk to wintertime visitors from avalanches.

Cautiously optimistic – With all the focus on
a train and tunnel outcome it is important to remember that those are just two of the options being considered for study through Phase II of the Mountain Accord.

Ugly – Any transit option that impacts our watershed and environment, flora and fauna, access and quality of life before being vetted by the public and studied subjected to an Environmental Impact Study under the NEPA process would be irresponsible.

Worrisome – Mountain Accord in phase 2 should look at getting people to the canyons not through the canyons. It’s a simple change of a preposition, but missing opportunities to streamline transit in the Salt Lake Valley is ignoring the root cause of our mobility issues in the region.

Cottonwood Negotiation Task Force Outcomes

Bad – Snowbird is negotiating a land exchange with the USFS for areas in Utah County. These lands would surely be developed by Snowbird as they edge toward securing a second base in Utah County.

Awesome – As part of that same land exchange (Snowbird and USFS), parts of Mt. Superior and Flagstaff Mountain, plus in-holdings in White Pine and Days Fork would all be permanently protected from future roller coasters, condo developments or ski areas expansion.

Concerning – Solitude’s portion of the land exchange includes a realignment of the Honeycomb return lift, allowing it to pick up skiers descending Silver Fork. No lift would be built in Silver Fork, but it remains to be seen how backcountry skiing would be impacted in upper Silver Fork.

Fantastic – Strategic portions of Guardsman pass area would come into public ownership preventing future development pressures from both ski areas and condo builders.

Bottom line – The future of Grizzly Gulch is still under negotiation. Protection of this area from ski-area expansion and development is essential to the success of Mountain Accord.