SALT LAKE CITY — Alta Ski Area's president and general manager is pushing back against a proposed federal designation for the Wasatch canyons, arguing it is premature given the congestion and transportation problems that haven't been addressed.
"Creating the conservation and recreation area first could restrict or prohibit solutions to address congestion and parking issues," said Michael Maughan.
On Wednesday, the Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands will hear from Maughan and others on the proposed designation, which was endorsed unanimously by the Central Wasatch Commission last month.
"It is frustrating to see skiers coming to ski at Alta needing to park on highway shoulders, less-safe areas, or being turned away because the parking lots are full when we are willing and have the resources to provide additional parking," he said.
The Central Wasatch Commission is pursuing congressional legislation that would establish the Central Wasatch Conservation and Recreation Area encompassing 80,000 acres. Within that footprint, the act would also set aside 8,000 acres of new wilderness and contemplate land trades between the ski resorts and the U.S. Forest Service.
Save Our Canyons, a nonprofit group, accused Alta Ski Area of trying to derail the designation and was urging people to attend Wednesday's meeting as a show of support.
"Last year Alta wanted tunnels and a train, the year before that they wanted interconnect. Now they want to literally pave the headwaters of our watershed, induce more traffic into the canyons and build more impervious surfaces that degrade both natural habitat and the quality of our drinking water," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.
Maughan said the Wasatch commission should first solve the transportation problem in the canyons before it seeks to add "undefined" environmental protections.
"It seems premature to create a conservation and recreation area before developing transportation solutions that reduce congestion and address parking issues in the Cottonwood Canyons."
Lindsey Nielsen, commission spokeswoman, said the designation legislation is a "lands bill, not a transportation bill."
She added that the commission is not ignoring the traffic issue and instead is co-managing a corridor study with the Utah Department of Transportation, as well as a separate analysis that will look at parking structures.
Maughan said ski areas are restricted from adding additional parking by a 2003 U.S. Forest Service management plan that has not been updated to reflect the increased visitation to the canyons.
The plan says additional parking can be added if it is necessary for watershed protection or for mass transit.
Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend said for all practical purposes, parking has been expanded in the canyons through roadside parking.
"We're trying to manage that use and decrease the impacts," he said, adding there have been no formal proposals to add parking stalls in the canyons.
Maughan said the Forest Service management plan makes clear that additional parking is off the table, despite a 25 percent increase in skier visits since 2000.
"Capping the parking on Forest Service lands in the Cottonwood Canyons has not reduced demand or increased public transportation use," he said. "Our experience is that it is difficult to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation. Currently, less than 2 percent of the visitors to Alta in the winter ride the UTA bus."
The Utah Department of Transportation has begun a study of traffic issues in Little Cottonwood Canyon, expanding the scope recently to look at the immediate challenges of traffic congestion at key intersections, trailhead parking and canyon closures.
Spokesman John Gleason said the analysis will specifically address issues associated with roadside parking, which is creating environmental and public safety impacts.
Randy Doyle, general manager at Brighton Ski Resort, said the ski area has also been unable to expand its parking despite increased visitation.
"Solutions for us revolve around mass transit and improvement to the highways."
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest draws 10.7 million visitors on an annual basis, more than any of the state's national parks.