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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Rep. Jim Matheson announces his plans to introduce legislation next week to protect more than 26,000 additional acres in the Mill Creek and Cottonwood canyons.

HOLLADAY — Citing years of collaboration and compromise among varied interest groups, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, announced plans to protect more than 26,000 acres of land in Mill Creek and Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

Amid celebratory fanfare at a Thursday press conference, Matheson was joined by Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker and Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan in a push to garner support for federal legislation he says he plans to introduce next week.

"This is the first major Wasatch Front watershed protection legislation in Utah since the Wilderness Act of 1984," Matheson told dozens gathered for the event.

The land-protection measure proposes to set aside 15,541 acres as wilderness and another 10,480 acres as "special management" areas with concessions to heli-skiing. While the proposal does away with an ATV trail, it preserves another for mountain biking.

Matheson said such compromises have been reached in multiple meetings that included a variety of groups such as skiers, mountain bikers and those who would prefer the land remain untouched.

"The Wasatch Mountains are maybe the greatest resource of Salt Lake City, providing 50 percent or more of our water," Becker said, adding that the mountains are a symbolic resource that is particularly unique because of their proximity to an urban area.

He also said that population growth, coupled with the attention the state received because of the 2002 Winter Games, are posing new challenges that merit action now to protect the watershed and the outdoor recreational grandeur offered by the mountains.

"The pressures have grown exponentially in these mountains," he said. "It is incumbent on us to recognize the pace of change we have gone through."

Matheson said the bill would create a new 7,759-acre wilderness area and an additional 7,782 acres to the existing wilderness areas of Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak. Additionally, a new wilderness area of 7,759 acres designated on Grandeur Peak-Mount Aire proposed under the bill would be named in honor of the late Rep. Wayne Owens, a popular Democrat who died of a heart attack in 2002 while working in Israel. Owens had also proposed legislation more than 20 years ago that would have put 5 million wilderness acres in Utah off limits to vehicles.

"It is a fitting tribute," Matheson said.

He stressed he believes his legislation will have the support of the public, citing recent surveys of comments solicited on the Wasatch Canyons master plan in which 78 percent of respondents placed "high value" on the environment, recreational opportunities and water quality.

"This is securing the future of our watershed," he said. "It creates certainty about what will or will not happen in certain areas."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com