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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon is pictured on Thursday, April 4, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — A decade ago, Envision Utah launched the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow project designed to update the Salt Lake County Master Plan from 10 years earlier.

It is now 2019, and multiple entities are still grappling with arriving at solutions to the challenges in the canyons.

The problems are complex and vast: congestion, watershed vulnerability, transportation, visitor experience, protection of wildlife, providing world-class recreational opportunities without damaging natural resources, private property development interests and more.

The studies have cost millions and the solutions will cost billions. The Mountainous Planning Commission is doing its own study, the Central Wasatch Commission is working in conjunction with the Utah Department of Transportation on possible short-term and long-term transportation solutions, with the commission pushing a multi-stakeholder crafted federal designation.

Community councils are engaging with these studies, but some members are feeling left out, voting just recently to form a new effort to look at canyon challenges.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Traffic is backed up in all directions at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon as the canyon experiences intermittent closures during a winter storm on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.

The Granite Community Council's Transportation Committee met for the first time last week, but people who attended came from multiple areas of the valley.

Bert Holland, a New Mexico transplant who spent many years living in Germany, told the Deseret News that canyon challenges are not just a Salt Lake County problem, or even a Utah problem, but that these challenges confront the national and international visitors who come to experience the state's famous powdery snow.

"I would like to not have to form another committee or another entity, but there are people who feel left out," Holland said.

"I know quite a bit of money has already been spent but it is not exactly clear what the results are," he added.

The committee wants to look at all the completed studies, what has been accomplished based on recommendations and examine the body of work under an umbrella that includes transportation, canyon and resort connections, water rights, decision-making authority and watershed protection, to name a few.

Vaughn Cox, chairman of the Granite Community Council, said the transportation committee grew out of the desire to have more "voice" in the destiny of the canyons.

"Based on our experiences in dealing with all the other organizations, we have come to the conclusion that the voice of the public, the residents and the citizens, doesn't really have a seat at the table," Cox said.

Cox said he is given a few minutes to talk at the end of other government organization meetings and wonders how seriously his input is considered.

"Often times I don't think they take us as seriously as other government organizations or special interest organizations," he said.

Representatives from some of those organizations disagree about public involvement.

"Salt Lake County is committed to engaging with the Granite Community Council on these important issues," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

"We recently had a productive meeting with Granite Community Council leadership and look forward to more fruitful sitdowns in the future. Canyon transportation issues are complex in nature and have regional impacts and we are committed to addressing issues of concern to all. We want to be responsive to the views of the Granite Community Council and to all who care about the canyons."

The Central Wasatch Commission released this statement, which read in part:

"Public engagement is critical to any planning process, including the many previous planning studies completed for the Cottonwood canyons. The Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement and the Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Action Plan have relied heavily on the public processes of these past efforts, as feedback from the public is essential to guide the data collection and technical analysis that occur throughout the planning process."

Wilf Sommerkorn, director of regional planning and transportation for Salt Lake County, said the clamoring of voices in the process is the "nature of the beast" because of so many involved entities.

"There is no question there is so many overlapping jurisdictions depending on what is being considered. Transportation is much the bailiwick of (UDOT). Of course everyone else and what they see are the important issues they are dealing with."

Cox said the intent of the transportation committee isn't to launch another study but to carefully examine what has been done before and ensure it gets a seat at the table during the transportation study as the agency rolls it out.

Even in the midst of all these studies about the canyons, there is disagreement over what should be a priority.

Pat Shea, attorney for Friends of Alta, said that organization wants UDOT to include a visitor carrying capacity for the canyons.

"From a biological point of view, visitor carrying capacity is not complex. It is very specific on how many humans can be in the canyon at any given time without doing irreparable harm," Shea said.

Adding any more impermeable surfaces such as roadways and more parking lots would mean harming a water supply serving a million people, he added.

"It has the potential of causing irreparable harm to the thing we all need every 72 hours — and that is potable water."

But Alta Ski Area Manager Mike Maughan said all varieties of capacity need to be looked at. His own resort is in the midst of a capacity study to look at the resort's vulnerabilities.

His parking area that fits between 2,000 and 2,200 vehicles is based on a geographic footprint contained in a permit issued under the parameters of a Forest Service plan from 2003.

In the ensuing 15 or so years, the resort has seen more demand and there are between 200 and 300 cars that park along the highway during holidays and weekends.

"Our parking lots are inadequate for our visitors," he said. "Other resorts are having the same problem."

The parking lot constraints as part of the Forest Service plan, came in part with an emphasis on providing more transit to encourage a reduction in motor vehicle traffic.

Maughan said it has largely not caught on with the recreating public.

Last season, there were 167,000 Utah Transit Authority trips sponsored by the ski resorts carrying an estimated 83,000 people.

Visitors to ski resorts number about 2 million.

During the busiest times when there is good snow over the holidays or weekends, he said his resort gets about 6,000 people. But in ripe conditions, it could handle 1,000 or 2,000 more people.

"There are some people who feel the canyons can't handle any more people than they already do," he added, but the resort's capacity is constrained by the permit.

3 comments on this story

Crowded conditions on roadways to ski resorts aren't a problem unique to Utah, but a challenge across mountainous areas in the United States.

An article in Ski Magazine noted the crowded conditions on I-70 in Colorado leading to resorts like Vail, Breckenridge and Aspen.

Some skiers have stopped going altogether, or alter the days they hit the hills.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates it costs ski resorts and other businesses about $840 million a year.

SkiUtah and Sommerkorn was unaware of any similar study looking at economic impacts from congestion.