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Lee Benson
Conservationist horticulturist Matthew Utley, left, and Coleman Worthen of the Alta Environmental Center with the 4,200 plants that will be restored to Alta's mountains on the town's restoration day, Saturday, June 23.

ALTA — Maura Olivos came to this ski town 16 years ago because Greg, her boyfriend/husband-to-be, had a goal of being a ski bum and he couldn’t think of anywhere on Earth he’d rather live out his dream.

Little did Olivos know, she was coming to her own kind of paradise, too.

Olivos is an ecologist. She loves plants. At Alta, the crown that sits atop Little Cottonwood Canyon, she landed smack in the middle of one of the planet’s most beautiful mountain landscapes – with a dizzying diversity of native shrubs, plants and flowers unrivaled anywhere this side of the rainforest.

It took her awhile to make the discovery, though. For her first few years in Utah, she worked in the ski area’s ticket office during the winter and as soon as the snow stopped falling, she traveled to other parts of the country to work as an ecologist, putting to use the degree in environmental science she got at Unity College in Maine.

Lee Benson
Maura Olivos, Alta Ski Area's sustainability coordinator, stands next to an area that is being restored to its natural state.

But then, in 2007, she finally spent the summer at Alta – and saw what she’d been missing.

“We'd loved Alta from the start, we loved the skiing, we loved the culture,” recalls Olivos. “But it wasn’t until that summer (of 2007) that I saw the full picture of Alta.”

Things happened fast after that. In 2008 the ski area opened the Alta Environmental Center and in May 2009, when it dawned on everyone that the best place for a world-class ecologist probably wasn’t selling lift tickets, Olivos was named director of the center and given the title of sustainability coordinator.

A place long noted for its conservation efforts – where remnants of the old mining town are nary to be seen – upped the ante even more.

Among Olivos’ many brainstorms is Alta Restoration Day.

The first one was organized by her in June 2011. The call went out for volunteers to weed, fix trails and, especially, plant plants. The response was so gratifying – dozens and dozens of Alta’s many friends showing up to restore the hillsides – that the event turned into an annual affair.

This year’s Restoration Day will take place Saturday starting at 8 a.m. Anyone and everyone is invited. (You can register at the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation website or just show up. Bring work gloves, lunch, water, sunscreen and long pants are recommended).

The day is recycling at its most organic and green. The process begins months before when Matthew Utley, a conservationist horticulturist who has long worked with Alta, collects seeds from the Alta hillsides (with permission from the U.S. Forest Service) and grows them in tubes, after which they are given to Olivos and her staff, who on Restoration Day hand them off to the volunteers with instructions to plant them in areas that have been disrupted by ski area improvements or hikers wandering off path.

Lee Benson
To help avoid wandering off-trail, the Alta Environmental Center created this path for foot traffic between the Albion base and the Wildcat base.
Lee Benson
Summertime hikers at Alta are encouraged to stay on trails and allow abused areas to rejuvenate.

Some 4,200 plants are ready and waiting to be planted this year, representing 21 native varieties.

The whole idea is to “Make it Alta Nice,” says Utley.

“A lot of it is stuff we only have here, something really unique and native.”

A big benefit of Restoration Day, beyond the planting, says Olivos, is spreading awareness that “this is a sensitive environmental place. Every time you step off the trail you can do damage. It’s important to educate people about that.”

Her passion for protecting and enhancing the environment was recognized in 2014 when SKI Magazine and the National Ski Areas Association presented Olivos with its first-ever “Hero of Sustainability” award, a national honor given annually to an individual in the ski industry going above and beyond the call of duty to make a positive environmental difference.

Olivos shrugs off the accolade. Just doing my job, she demures as she gazes at Alta’s mountainside just starting to put on its summer coat.

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She looks toward High Rustler, the ski area’s iconic black diamond ski run, dressed in a flowing curtain of green. It looks good now, but wait a month, when the wildflowers will be in full array and the brush will be up to your waist.

“The wildflowers are pretty,” Olivos rhapsodizes. “But it’s everything that’s underneath, that’s in the understructure, that makes it all work, that holds the hillside together, that feeds the wildlife, that keeps Alta pretty.

“The diversity just blows my mind. There are at least 350 different species here. You’re not going to find that anywhere, besides the rainforest. Yeah, this is a pretty incredible place. This is something we want to hang on to.”