Public weighs in on federal lands protections bill at Park City gathering
Two groups of about a half-dozen people sat huddled around circular tables in the Park City High School cafeteria Tuesday evening, grappling not with calculus or chemistry, but an equally thorny topic: how best to protect the central Wasatch Mountains.
Representatives of the Central Wasatch Commission moderated discussions about its new draft legislation, and staffers wrote attendees’ complaints and plaudits with Sharpies on posters that sat on easels on the outskirts of the circles.
The Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act would establish new or expand existing protections for about 40,000 acres of land in the Wasatch Range. If passed, virtually all of the land between Interstate 80 and the Utah County line would be under some sort of protection.
About a dozen residents came to the public input session.
At one table, a landowner with holdings in the proposed conservation area sat two seats away from a man who introduced himself by saying he wanted to see public interests trump private ones when evaluating land issues.
The other table heard an extensive back and forth about the seriousness of the area’s transportation problems, the relative merits of different solutions and the shortcomings of previous attempts at conservation and transportation fixes.
The bill would create a new, 28,000-acre National Conservation and Recreation Area that would cover and protect land mostly in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons. It also includes about 1,000 acres in Summit County, mostly in the backcountry spot known as the Monitors.
Ski resorts have attempted to expand into the area in the past, but have been rebuffed, according to Park City Mayor Andy Beerman, who also sits on the Central Wasatch Commission. The bill would protect the Monitors from future expansion.
The legislation deals mostly with land protections while the other main thrust of the Central Wasatch Commission — solving transportation problems — is left to a separate but concurrent process.
Most of the land included in the proposal is now controlled by the U.S. Forest Service. While it’s being protected currently, the protections could be undone with administrative rule changes. Chris Robinson, a Summit County Councilor and member of the commission, said if the bill becomes law, undoing the land protections would require an act of Congress, a critical distinction.
Effects on private land
This bill supposedly removes all private landholdings from the newly protected areas, leaving irregular shapes cut out from the teal-blue overlay on the maps the commission presented.
But one landowner at the meeting said he had three holdings that would be subject to the new designations, including some inside the proposed new ski area boundaries.
Cottonwood ski areas would increase control of their base areas if the bill is passed through a series of land swaps that would allow the resorts to take privately held lands on the mountainsides in exchange for publicly held land at the base areas of the resorts.
Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude would then own the land at their base areas and the Forest Service would own land on surrounding hillsides. Ski area expansion into newly protected land would be prohibited.
For the man who owns land inside the new boundaries, the proposal is troubling.
Beerman told attendees the intent of the bill is not to include any private land in the newly designated areas. The commission’s communications director, Lindsey Neilsen, said the bill includes language that necessitates the new designation not harm or hurt private landowners.
But the landowner at the meeting did not appear mollified, saying the bill’s intent is less important than its actual wording. It’s not that the maps are inaccurate, the man said, it’s that the process started with promises to negotiate land swaps and now appears set to take his property.
He was assured otherwise, but pointed at the map that showed his land overlaid in blue.
Ralph Becker, the commission’s executive director said the bill’s top priority is watershed protection. That’s been the No. 1 issue for stewards of the land for a century. The draft explicitly allows for fire mitigation and watershed protection work in the proposed National Conservation and Recreation Area.
It would also restrict ski area growth to the defined base areas, and would not permit expansion into the conservation area.
The area has a history of mining, which often contaminates land. The legislation includes language that attempts to make sure cleanup costs are absorbed by the ski areas rather than the federal government.
The details of how the land would be protected will be outlined in a management plan that would be written within three years of the bill’s passing.
At the input session, people got a glimpse of how certain decisions were made. Responding to a question about the name of the new land designation, Becker explained it’s called that because one group really wanted a National Conservation Area while another wanted a National Recreation Area. Thus, the National Conservation and Recreation Area.
Similarly, the White Pine Watershed Protection Area is so named to allow for some existing uses, like heli-skiing, that are banned in the Wilderness Area designations that cover neighboring lands. Summit County has considered pushing for federal legislation that would create a Watershed Protection Area to cover lands in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, though for different reasons. The two projects are not related.
Other conversations at the meeting centered on transportation. Becker said both Park City and Summit County had made it clear they did not want any sort of new connection to the Wasatch Front, including something like a tram system. He has said expanding Guardsman Pass is off the table, which seems to be the consensus.
But as for an aerial connection, neither Beerman nor Robinson have taken as hard a line as Becker has suggested.
Beerman said an idea like a gondola connection would merit discussion but made clear he was not advocating for it. Such a system would have to be for transportation purposes rather than new skier access, and align with environmental and backcountry user goals. He said the Cottonwoods side has been more resistant to a connection.
Robinson said he wasn’t sure where such negotiations stood now. While he’s sure people are against tunnel connections, he said some of his fellow County Councilors would like to see the resorts on the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back connected.
The legislation explicitly allows transportation improvements on the conservation land, including roadway improvements and “mountain transportation systems.”
It leaves open the option for base-to-base resort connections and transportation systems like aerial tramways.
What comes next
The draft legislation presented Tuesday is the fourth version of the bill, and though Becker said it’s about 95 percent identical to a 2016 effort, this one has gone through Congressional Drafting Services, changing its language and readying it for introduction.
The legislation lacks a sponsor, but Becker said U.S. Rep. John Curtis’ office has worked closely on the legislation and their representatives communicate weekly, if not daily. He did not say Curtis had committed to bringing the bill before Congress.
U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams previously served on the Central Wasatch Commission.
Becker said the feedback gathered at public information sessions like the one in Park City will be compiled and categorized, and the commission will respond to each category of input in writing.
Public comment on the draft of the bill is open until Thursday, after which the commission will review the feedback and likely vote to forward a bill in November.
To read a copy of the bill and see maps of the proposal, visit cwc.utah.gov.
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