SANDY — Following months of brainstorming, the Mountain Accord was approved Monday and its ideas are now under consideration.
Let the debates begin.
Stakeholders Monday endorsed the 16-page document that represents the consensus positions of a team of policymakers and community leaders that have spent many months working to develop a long-range plan to manage transportation and conservation interests in Utah's central Wasatch Mountains while balancing protection of water and land resources with Utah's projected future population growth and economic expansion.
Among the many proposed ideas written into the report:
• Land preservation
• Expansion of transit options that could include trains to mountain resorts
• A tunnel connecting Big and Little Cottonwood canyons
• The development of street-level transit along major thoroughfares leading up the canyons
• Creation of a network of trails
The document is nonbinding as the Mountain Accord has no enforcement authority, so items in it are subject to change based on public feedback and other pertinent information.
The formal National Environmental Policy Act decision-making process could begin this fall and would take approximately two years before any further determinations are made.
While supporters of the Mountain Accord believe it is a suitable framework for future development and conservation that would help alleviate some of the environmental concerns created by increasing growth and use of the canyon recreations areas of the central Wasatch Front, some critics argue that some provisions in the final document “don’t make sense from the standpoint of public health protection or effective use of taxpayer funds.”
Dr. Howie Garber, board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the most important is the role of watershed conservation. He contends that the accord sacrifices some priority in deference to the ski industry.
“Given the significant disruption of the mountain environment that would result from the proposed tunnel between the Cottonwood canyons, a serious impact on the watershed would likely result,” he said. “A new right of way that parallels the existing road would lead to further stress on water quality and watershed, not to mention seriously impair the natural beauty of the canyon.”
He also believes the estimated billion dollar-plus price tag of building such a transit system and tunnel would be an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.
“Given that tunneling could cost billions of dollars, this amount of money could be much better spent on mass transit improvements and expansion in the Salt Lake Valley and along the Wasatch Front,” he said.
Garber said that his organization believes equal consideration should be given during the environmental impact process to the potential for optimized bus rapid transit and transportation that does not involve trans-canyon connections.
“Any analysis of trans-canyon transportation should consider the loss of water resources and increase in water costs to a growing population,” he said.
Park City resident Rich Wyman said he believes the accord has numerous positive attributes, particularly as it relates to environmental protections included in the document. However, he worries it doesn’t go far enough to curb economic development in a way that conserves the natural beauty of the canyon areas.
“The ski industry wants to capitalize on the Wasatch Mountains,” he said. “We just need to be careful of some of the transportation ideas that have been (suggested) which would be harmful, specifically a train going up the canyon would be terrible.”
He also thinks the tunnel connector is a “bad idea.”
“The trains and the tunnel are both an environmental disaster and an economic waste of billions of dollars that could be spent on many other things,” he said. “Constructing the tunnel could be potentially devastating to the forests."
“The Wasatch Mountains have to be protected for future generations,” he added. “I want the focus to be on protecting our natural resources and not sacrificing them for future generations for short-term economic gains.”
Mountain Accord project manager Laynee Jones said the stakeholders have always taken the public’s interest into consideration throughout the 18-month process and they will make a concerted effort to address those issues going forward.
The initial draft of the accord released last week included language regarding a possible land swap between Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and the U.S. Forest Service. That previous wording detailing the proposed land exchange that involved acreage in Utah County’s American Fork Canyon was deleted from the accord.
The executive board agreed to respect Utah County’s jurisdiction in the matter and is not taking a position on the land proposal as it relates to Utah County.
“We’re going to continue that commitment in the next phase (of the project),” she said.
Jones said among the next significant goals will be to ask Congress to designate approximately 80,000 acres of federal land as National Recreation Area, National Monument, or Conservation Management Area. The federal land designation would specifically prohibit expansion of ski areas onto public lands beyond the current resort area boundaries — something the local ski areas have already agreed upon.
“We have the resorts willingly imposing this restriction upon themselves,” she said. If approved in Washington D.C., the lands would remain open to public use in perpetuity, unless Congress deemed otherwise.
This would allow the public to continue enjoying the natural lands in the manner that was intended, she said.
“If you have it today, you have it in the future,” Jones said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who serves as chairman of the Mountain Accord executive board, said eventual approval would ultimately be “a win for conservation.”
“We would take some land that is privately held that the landowners would put up for conservation and take some (federally-held land) and exchange it,” he explained. “We’re looking to protect and preserve what’s most valuable to us.”
He said the desired outcome is for legislation to be enacted before the end of the 2016 calendar year, though there is no guarantee that will happen.
The public comment period for Mountain Accord continues for the next few months, Jones said.
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