SALT LAKE CITY — A hard-fought comprise on conservation, preservation and future development of the central Wasatch Mountains' most popular and critical recreation areas could become federal law.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced legislation Monday based on the Mountain Accord, a 16-page document that represents consensus among state and local government officials, community leaders, and businesses and environmental groups on a long-term management plan for the canyons east of Salt Lake City.
Chaffetz said the bill would guide growth and preservation efforts for decades to come.
"Utah once again leads the way in demonstrating the power of a collaborative approach to local problems. I’m pleased that so many parties with such varied agendas could come together in agreement on a way forward for our beloved Wasatch Mountains," he said.
The legislation would protect nearly 80,000 acres of public land and concentrate development within certain boundaries. It also would:
• Continue existing recreational uses and permits.
• Protect natural resources and watersheds.
• Maintain U.S. Forest Service ownership and management of the lands and prohibit new roads on Forest Service land.
• Add about 8,000 acres of wilderness.
• Authorize land exchanges between the Forest Service and the four Cottonwood canyons ski resorts.
• Permanently set ski resort boundaries on Forest Service land with some adjustments through the existing permitting process.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat, said the legislation is needed to give direction to the federal government and the Forest Service on how local leaders want the lands managed.
Various interests have been tied up in litigation and contentious battles about the Wasatch Mountains for decades, but the bill shows there's a better way than through the courts to reach an agreement, he said.
Nobody got everything they wanted, McAdams said, but in the end it struck a balance that's good for the environment, the ski industry, recreation, transportation and water quality.
"I reject the notion of an either-or, that there has to be conflict between protecting our canyons and our watershed, that there has to be conflict with me taking my kids for a weekend hike, showing them local wildlife or having a ski day in the canyons, or growing our economy and planning for smart transportation options," he said.
State lawmakers have traveled to Switzerland to look at mountain railway systems and pitch the Mountain Accord to an expansion-minded Swiss rail company. The accord doesn't recommend rail as a possible new mode of canyon transportation, but it doesn't reject it either.
Chaffetz's bill doesn't advance or stop that idea but leaves that conversation for another day, McAdams said.
"I personally don't believe that a train is a necessary expenditure," he said, adding that better bus service would relieve traffic congestion in the canyons.
The legislation has bipartisan support among Utah politicians, including Republican congressional Reps. Chris Stewart and Mia Love, and Democratic Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who joined Chaffetz at a Grandeur Peak trailhead Monday to announce the proposal.