Parkites, passionate about open space, flocking to the outdoors
Park Record contributor
This Saturday, Sept. 26, is National Public Lands Day, and while it may not be on most people’s radar this year, it is likely that more residents than ever will be busy exercising their right to access Summit County’s plentiful open lands this weekend.
In 2016, Park City residents approved a $25 million open space bond to purchase 1,400 acres of undeveloped land along the city’s skyline. While the price tag would require a significant hike in their property taxes, voters passed the measure by a 70% margin. In the years since, locals have embraced the property known as Bonanza Flat as a natural extension of their own backyard.
In fact, throughout Summit County and the state, residents have consistently dug deep in their pocketbooks to support trails, conservation easements and watersheds. Through grants, private contributions and the generous cooperation of several longtime landholders, the locally based Summit Land Conservancy now serves as the steward of approximately 7,000 acres of public land. Statewide, another local nonprofit, Utah Open Lands, has helped to preserve more than 62,000 acres of land that may otherwise have been developed.
According to the leaders of both organizations, those high alpine meadows, rivers, pasturelands and forests have become a vital sanctuary during the pandemic, as more residents and visitors than ever have been seeking refuge outdoors.
“We were fortunate to have so much publicly accessible land when the pandemic hit,” said Summit Land Conservancy Executive Director Cheryl Fox. “The Summit Land Conservancy conducted a survey where 98% of respondents reported going to these open spaces for exercise, solace and rejuvenation during the pandemic.”
Utah Open Lands Executive Director Wendy Fisher echoed that observation.
“COVID has provided a bit of a laser focus on how critical our trails and open spaces are. Utah Open Lands has witnessed firsthand how connecting with nature has provided a sense of normalcy for some and for others has been crucial to mental and physical health at an uncertain time.”
Land preservation also plays a role in helping to stave off climate change, an issue of special concern to winter resort towns that stand to see their ski season melt away.
“Land conservation can be a critical tool in mitigating climate change, but again, only if we can save it,” said Fox.
As to the economics of choosing open space over development, Fisher, who has spent 30 years at the helm of the state’s conservation effort, says that despite some of the high-profile battles, she is optimistic.
“It is truly dawning on leaders that there is an integral connection between a vibrant economy and open land in Utah. People are still coming to Utah to recreate because of the millions of acres of public landscapes, they are still moving here, in large part, because of the opportunities to get outdoors,” said Fisher.
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“It offers opportunities for people to try out tools such as infrared cameras, ultraviolet light, magnifying glasses and magnetic field detectors that are used to locate the unseen elements in space.”