New federal bill from Central Wasatch Commission would protect thousands of acres
When the owners of Solitude Mountain Resort and what was then Canyons Resort proposed connecting the ski areas with a gondola, the effects reverberated as far as Washington, D.C., though the proposal didn’t make it past the planning stage.
It did, however, serve as an eye-opening moment for those with an interest in protecting the Wasatch Range, said Ralph Becker, the executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission who was then the mayor of Salt Lake City.
Eight years later, the Central Wasatch Commission, which was born out of a coalition of stakeholders who came together at that time to protect the Wasatch Range, unveiled a new draft of a piece of federal legislation that would establish a massive new conservation and recreation area, restrict potential growth of Wasatch ski areas and enable certain transportation improvements in the conservation area.
It does not prohibit linking ski areas with an aerial tramway, Becker said, but it attempts to restrict such a link to a transportation use only, rather than opening up new skiing terrain.
That means there likely won’t be a new tram dropping riders off on ridgelines in the Cottonwood canyons, though the door is open for a transportation system linking base areas.
A draft of the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area act was released on Aug. 19, and members of the Central Wasatch Commission are coming to Park City to hear public feedback this week.
The public comment forum will be held from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday in the Park City High School cafeteria.
The most direct impact in Summit County is the inclusion of nearly 1,000 acres within county borders in the proposed conservation and recreation area, including the backcountry skiing spot known as the Monitors. That would prevent ski area expansion into the area, said Park City Mayor Andy Beerman, who serves on the Central Wasatch Commission. Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson is also a member of the commission.
For the most part, this bill does not address the other major focus of the commission — finding regional transportation solutions — as that process does not require federal action.
The push to protect the Wasatch Range was renewed after the 2011 effort to sell 30 acres of public land to private owners to create the so-called SkiLink between Solitude and Canyons mountain resorts. Out of that urgency came the Mountain Accord, and the Central Wasatch Commission, which wrote this bill, was formed to carry out the goals of that accord.
“What came out of SkiLink was, we need to get our heads together locally and decide what we want, so it isn’t just responding to specific projects,” Becker said.
A 2016 version of the land conservation bill served as the starting point for the current effort, Becker said, and the two share about 95 percent of the same material.
Some of the changes in the new draft were included at the request of U.S. Reps. John Curtis and Ben McAdams, Becker said, largely to tweak the language to get it in shape to be presented to Congress.
Other notable changes include more clearly defining which private lands would be included in the protections, establishing the White Pine Watershed Protection Area and how it would be managed, allowing the U.S. Forest Service to receive “split estates” in which one entity owns the land on the surface and another the land underground, and explicitly allowing for transportation improvements on the conservation land, including roadway improvements and mountain transportation systems. Becker said the overall purpose remains the same: To protect the Wasatch Range — front and back — while allowing for solutions to long-term issues that have plagued the area for years, like how to establish efficient transportation in the mountains.
Beerman said the areas for proposed land exchanges have been more clearly defined to protect the rights of private landowners who don’t want to be included.
The overarching strategy for the proposed land swaps is to take mountainside land in the Cottonwoods owned by Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird ski resorts and swap it with publicly owned land at their base areas, Becker explained. That would enable greater protections of the mountains themselves and prevent ski area growth while possibly allowing the resorts to expand their base areas.
Additionally, the bill calls for the protection of nearly 30,000 acres in a newly formed conservation and recreation area, which would mean the vast majority of the Wasatch Range south of Interstate 80 and north of the Utah County line would be under some sort of protection.
It also proposes expanding or creating three Wilderness Areas in Salt Lake County. The proposed protected areas total 38,625 acres.
Solitude, Brighton and Snowbird have signaled their willingness for the land-swap idea, Becker said, but Alta Ski Area has vacillated on the issue and is now saying it is not interested.
Public comment on the draft of the bill is open until Sept. 19, after which the commission will review the input at its October meeting, likely voting to move forward with the bill in November.
To read a copy of the bill and see maps of the proposal, visit cwc.utah.gov.
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