I don’t think we need to encourage more commercial development in the canyon. Let's leave the canyon for what it is — a natural experience. —Cottonwood Heights resident Victoria Schmidt
SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to potentially develop parts of the Wasatch Front’s most popular recreation areas is rousing alarm among some nearby residents.
Following the release last month of the Mountain Accord blueprint, a number of area residents have voiced their concern about the proposal’s potential impacts on their community and the possible effects on Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
Mountain Accord, a consortium of 20 public and private entities, issued its proposed plan for future development of the central Wasatch recreation areas, noting economic centers and transit routes, and are seeking public feedback about what Utah should look like in the future.
The group released a vast blueprint that incorporated a network of trails, expansion of transit that could include trains to mountain resorts, and a tunnel connecting two canyons. The plan hopes to balance protection of water and land resources with Utah's growth and economic expansion.
That's raised concern about the communities on the benches near the canyon entrances.
“There is no question of the importance of preserving our greatest natural resource, the Wasatch Mountains, and every possible avenue for protecting this resource should be considered,” said Granite township resident Don Halverson.
The most aggressive part of the Mountain Accord plan involves mass transit up the Cottonwood canyons in the form of either bus or rail, with a cost estimated in the billions, he said. Bus service would cost less, but would still require a large amount of cash and the construction of additional lanes in the canyon to allow for dedicated bus service, he said.
Either expansion would have significant impact on the environmental and recreational assets of the canyon, he said.
He said Mountain Accord has focused its attention on a relatively small area from Parley's Canyon to Little Cottonwood Canyon that includes the major ski areas, with the remainder of the Wasatch Mountains including American Fork Canyon seemingly ignored.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams serves as chairman of the executive committee board of Mountain Accord. He has said stakeholders, which include business interests and environmentalists, are seeking compromise as they work to prepare for population along the central Wasatch blueprint area projected to grow from 1.1 million to 1.6 million by 2040, with the number of visitors to its recreation areas estimated to jump from 5.7 million to 7.2 million a year by then.
Cottonwood Heights resident Victoria Schmidt said she is also concerned about the possibility of increasing the volume of traffic and users to levels that overwhelm the area, particularly Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“I believe there is a natural carrying capacity of this canyon that doesn’t need to be exploited to try to get more than that (capacity) up here,” she said.
Another concern was the potential to denigrate the “quiet” recreational uses of the canyon like hiking or rock climbing. Building a train system could harm those kinds of activities, she said.
“It’s not going to help (people like) me at all,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think we need to encourage more commercial development in the canyon. Let's leave the canyon for what it is — a natural experience.”
Due to the number of questions raised, the Mountain Accord executive board voted this week to extend the public comment period at least through June and possibly longer. Originally, the period was scheduled to end March 16.
“There is this misconception that the blueprint is making a decision and it’s not,” project manager Laynee Jones said.
She said the board is in relative agreement on the need to improve transit in the canyons, develop an integrated trail network and balance tourism needs with the needs of local residents. However, how those goals are best accomplished is still up in the air.
Jones said that even when a plan is eventually “adopted,” there would still be plenty of opportunity for changes to whatever proposal is approved.
“We have to get everybody on board,” she said. “There is a lot more study that needs to happen before a (final) decision is made.”
“We have to chose the most environmentally sensitive way to achieve our goals,” Jones said. “We can’t be bowled over by the ski resorts that say they want a train. We have to go through a process to determine the mode (and transit alignment) that meets our needs the best.
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