As Salt Lake County holds public hearings as a preliminary to drawing up a master plan for Wasatch Mountain canyons, the arguments seem to have polarized at two extremes - developers on one side and environmentalists on the other. What is missing is some kind of middle ground.

It's clear that the canyons need protection. But they must be used as well. They are vital watershed, irreplaceable recreation sites, the source of world-famous skiing, a place to get away into nature, and even the site of private homes.All of these uses and expectations must be accommodated, even though they often clash.

The proposed master plan is focused chiefly on Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, but also would affect City Creek, Red Butte, Emigration, Parleys, and Mill Creek canyons.

Various options or scenarios are offered by the county as a basis for discussion. Planners emphasize that none of the four scenarios will be adopted in its entirety. The ultimate plan undoubtedly will be some mixture of several options.

Two problems have arisen in the hearings.

One is that nearly all the attention has been centered around the so-called Interconnect - a system of ski trails and lifts to link five ski resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and Park City. This has captured most of the attention at the expense of other issues such as water quality, dwellings, sewage, and transportation in the canyons.

Interconnect appears to be a valuable development that could raise Utah's ski reputation even higher. It has been endorsed by many groups representing skiers and business, as well as Gov. Norm Bangerter and his political challenger, Ted Wilson.

However, the proposal also raises questions about safety in the avalanche-prone mountains, and the extent of any environmental damage. These concerns must be carefully answered.

A second problem is that the alternative scenarios being considered for the master plan are so vaguely written - using language like "dispersed recreation," "symbiotic relationships," and "priority accommodation." They also are posed in terms of percentages and acres, rather than specifics on development.

One result has been to discourage involvement from the general public, leaving the field to those with vested interests or certain axes to grind, such as ski resort operators, developers, and environmentalists.

In drawing up a master plan for the County Commission to consider next year, the challenge is to achieve a difficult balance. Salt Lake Valley is going to keep growing, and some of that growth is bound to spill over into the canyons. Some development is not only inevitable but desirable. But let's also strive to cushion its impact on the unique environment of the nearby mountains.