Mountain Accord shifts focus to environment
July 3, 2015
Gone is the contentious idea to build a tunnel connecting Park City ski resorts to those in the Cottonwood canyons.
Gone is the proposal to study keeping Guardsman Pass Road open year round.
Demoted from the top priority is fixing transportation problems facing the Wasatch Front.
In their place is an across-the-board shift in focus for the group known as the Mountain Accord, a patchwork of representatives from ski resorts, environmental activists and area governments who have laid out an ambitious plan to control development in the Wasatch Mountains.
The latest version of the group’s plan might surprise some who remember last spring’s vocal opposition. The focus now is expanding and preserving the open land that covers the mountainsides straddling Summit and Salt Lake counties.
The new plan sets permanent borders between ski resorts and wilderness, delineating which acres can be developed and which ones will go under federal protection. Shifting the priority to the environment was a direct outcome of public outcry, Mountain Accord executive board members say.
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"Through the public process we heard that environmental protections and watershed protections are really our top priority," said Laynee Jones, the group’s program manager. " We’re clearly stating that that is our utmost priority.
"Our recreation activities are very important to all of us. They are foundational to our quality of life. And so we want to manage those better in the future to make sure that those recreational activities don’t kill the golden goose or damage the environment."
Overall, said Andy Beerman, Park City’s council member and the city’s representative on the Accord’s executive board, that step should signal good things for the Park City side of the mountain range. The environment comes first, he said, and that puts all else in perspective.
"The public said (the environment is) our golden goose," Beerman said. "Don’t screw it up. I think that’s the biggest change in the accord. I’m way proud of that."
"Preservation is the focus"
In a week, the Mountain Accord’s executive board will meet to reach final agreement on the newest version of the plan. Should it pass, the group will stage a signing ceremony of representatives from both sides of the Wasatch.
The plan calls for land swaps with the four resorts in the Cottonwood canyons. All four – Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird – would trade undeveloped acres on the slopes for land at their development’s base. From there, the accord would have the federal government protect the newly acquired acres.
In Summit County, nearly 1,000 acres at the Salt Lake County line – much of that already considered federal property – would go under stricter federal protection.
The switch to refocus on land preservation came after public comments criticized the first blueprint’s emphasis.
"There were some early criticisms of the process that it was a focus on transportation," said Mike Grass, the Mountain Accord’s communication manager. "Now that the process has been working for a while, we’ve had a number of groups come back and have acknowledged and thanked the committees by saying that preservation is the focus and a transportation solution is being considered to help preservation."
Studying the transit future
Shifting priorities is not the only change. The newest plan calls for studying traffic issues facing Interstate 80 between Park City and the Salt Lake valley, and also the U.S. 40 corridor between Kimball and Quinn’s junctions and parts of S.R. 248 and S.R. 224.
That will give Summit County the chance to anticipate issues and fix them before they develop into unmanageable problems. It also brings in other government agencies, a necessary step, said Chris Robinson, Summit County council member and the county’s representative to the Mountain Accord executive board.
If Park City and Summit County would "do our own studies, we’re just flapping in the wind," Robinson said. "We wouldn’t be part of the momentum that is behind this, that will call attention to problems. It might take us a decade or two to get the same kind of spotlight we’re now getting."
At Mountain Accord meetings, Robinson sits elbow-to-elbow with those who represent the necessary state and federal agencies to fix the issues. Beerman agrees, saying that studying transit ideas now gives the county the rare chance to be out front of traffic problems that will only grow worse.
"It’s not often someone comes to us and says ‘Let us help you with your transportation needs,’ " Beerman said, adding that the study could "catapult us a decade ahead."
He also said those opposed to the idea of a tunnel through the mountains should not be suspicious if that is part of the study. Although it is not in the Mountain Accord proposals, he said someone undoubtedly will raise the issue again. The new study will gather information that could possibly refute future proposals.
Why it’s important
The Mountain Accord has been discussing the problems facing the Wasatch for about two years. Even though many of the major issues deal with the Salt Lake side of the mountains, Jones argues that what’s good for the front slopes is good for the back ones.
"This is the first time that Park City has been included in such a comprehensive and regional look at the mountains and why they are crucial to Park City’s success, to your quality of life, to your economy. It’s why people live in Park City.
"This is the first time we have taken such a comprehensive look at their (the mountains) role and how to preserve them. The Accord proposes protections that do come into Summit County.
What comes next
Should the executive board agree July 13, the group must still jump several hurdles. Chief among them is getting Utah’s congressional delegation to make the open lands federally protected.
The government protects land through several levels of restrictions. The lightest would let agencies ease the protections on their own. Stricter protections require congressional approval, a more difficult and, in effect, permanent change.
"The idea is we want to protect those lands as much in the future as strongly as we can so they remain pristine and available for dispersed recreation and don’t become part of additional ski resorts or otherwise developed," Robinson said.
Accord members will spend the next few months writing a draft bill and visiting senators and representatives to explain the agreement.
Are congressional members behind the proposal?
"Ask me in a couple of months," Beerman said jokingly, then added with a serious note, "we are optimistic" that congressional representatives will support the basic initiative.
The group also has to begin the process of negotiating with private landowners, chiefly on the Salt Lake side, to sell their acreage for wilderness protection. A host of land rights – especially mineral and water – also complicate the negotiations. But first comes the signed agreement from the Accord’s executive committee.
"Acquiring land won’t happen until the agreement happens," Grass said.
The other big issue is further studies. Some are part of the normal process of acquiring federal approval. Others are the traffic studies in Summit County.
"Never before has there been this much attention on transit connections between Park City and Salt Lake," Jones said. "This is something that the Mountain Accord brought forward and has brought public attention to.
"It’s a strong theme that we heard from the residents of Park City and Summit County. Because of Mountain Accord, it is getting attention and it’s getting attention from the decision makers, and I think Park City residents should care about that."
"Don’t do nothing"
With such a wide range of interests represented on the board, no group won, many executive board members say. All are leaving the table having to give up something to get something.
"The beauty of this whole thing," Robinson said, "and what’s remarkable about it is that after a couple of years, despite a lot of conflicting interests and points of view, we’ve managed to reach an accord where we can move forward.
"It’s not the way a lot of people envisioned it, but it’s a good compromise."
And despite the diverse interests, Jones said the Accord’s plan does reach one important goal.
"One thing that we heard very strongly, very strongly from the public is don’t miss this opportunity to do something big," she said. "Do something.
"Don’t do nothing."
What does the accord address?
The Mountain Accord plan focuses on four areas:
- Preserving the environment of the Wasatch.
- Solving transit issues, especially those in the Cottonwood canyons and those up Interstate 80 between the Salt Lake valley and Park City
- Improving the economy with a focus on being sensitive to the ski resorts.
- Promoting recreation among residents on the front and back of the Wasatch.
Action for the future
Two upcoming actions could spell out the future of the Summit County’s involvement in the Mountain Accord. On Wednesday, the Summit County Council will decide if it will continue in the accord by authorizing a $50,000 yearly donation for the next three years. The following Monday, July 13, the accord’s executive board members will meet to reach final agreement on the plan. Both meetings are public.
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