Groups mapping the uncertain future of Wasatch canyons

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 11:35 p.m. MDT

A fisherman works with his line while fishing in Big Cottonwood canyon. Springtime weather brings out the hikers, bikers, walkers, and many others to the Wasatch front canyons Sunday, March 25, 2012

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The scenic mountains that enfold the Salt Lake Valley — from the Oquirrhs on the west to the Wasatch on the east — are an outdoor playground under siege from all corners.

The skiers want to surf the powder on the slopes; the mountain bikers want to breeze past aspens high in the hills; and down in the valley, in cities like Midvale, Sandy and Salt Lake; people simply want to turn on the tap and get fresh, clean water.

Keenly aware the foothills and canyons of Salt Lake County are valuable to people in starkly different ways, a group of planners, elected officials, caretakers and outdoor lovers are meeting Monday, March 26, to map out the future of the "canyons" and the foothills for decades to come.

How much constraint of development there is in places like Snowbird up Little Cottonwood Canyon or where private property owners can act unfettered is the big question that must be settled, and everyone agrees there are no easy answers.

"In the Salt Lake regional area, we have probably the most magnificent mountain setting of any place in the country, and certainly of any major urban area in the country," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "It is also one of the most heavily used places in the Forest Service area and it has a unique quality that if we don't act carefully, we will lose."

To that end, the key components of long-range planning for the canyons such as watershed protection, transportation, ski resort viability and backcountry recreation will be aired in a daylong symposium at the Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City, featuring a panel discussion and breakout sessions.

It is, organizers agree, the first baby step in a months-long process that will craft a new, improved version of what is called the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone — which hasn't seen revisions since it was first adopted in 1997.

"I think we need to have more clarity — not only for developers but for the environmental community who wants to know what will be built or what will not be built," said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, addressing the need for revisions.

The county has been at a political crossroads with itself over what constitutes a "permitted" development at ski resorts — with one county board voting to approve a mountain coaster at Snowbird, and another county board deciding it was not an allowed use.

The project remains in limbo, but what became urgent is the need to revise FCOZ and attempt to erase any ambiguity.

Revisions under consideration include changing the definition of a "ski resort" so summertime activities — which have always been an assumed acceptable use — can occur with appropriate zoning safeguards in place.

To shepherd those changes to FCOZ, Corroon has mapped out a plan that includes the establishment of a Blue Ribbon Commission that will draw members appointed by the Salt Lake County Council, Salt Lake City, the U.S. Forest Service, the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, as well as a "source water protection" representative.

With a half-million people dependent on the canyon's watershed for their source of water, leaders like Becker and Corroon agree protecting that quality of water has to be foremost — but how far those protections extend is what will spur the controversies.

"We have incredibly high-quality water coming out of these canyons," Becker said. "It is easy to take it for granted. But this is not something that has happened by accident. It has only been able to occur through careful stewardship of that resource for over a century now."

Salt Lake City, for its part, has always been quick to wave the watershed protection flag as a way to dissuade or oppose certain developments — a flag ski resorts looking to expand or improve say is displayed too often.

The proposal for the SkiLink — a gondola or tram that would ferry recreationers between the Canyons Ski Resort and Solitude — has raised alarm by Salt Lake City and others because they contend it will compromise the watershed and foster more development.

Canyons Ski Resort, which is pushing the resort-connect, said a water study done by consultants shows the tram won't jeopardize the valley's water supply.

Such tug-of-wars over the uses of the canyons — such as short-term economic interests going up against long-term preservation ideals — will be addressed in the coming months in public meetings in which all interested may attend. The goal is to get the new improved FCOZ in place by year's end, a goal which is not going to be easy to accomplish.

Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City's director of public utilities, said those competing interests coupled with the tremendous pressure on the canyons will demand compromise, a position he envisions will not leave everyone satisfied.

"It's not going to be easy," he concedes. "But if the foothills and the canyons are important to you, now is a good time to engage in the process that will determine their fate for the next 20 years."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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