Mountain Accord must move forward
This week’s announcement that Mountain Accord has extended its public comment deadline to an as-yet-undetermined date in the future is troubling. After all of the recent pep rallies and debates, this unexpected intermission suggests that the ambitious effort to find consensus among the myriad stakeholders along the central Wasatch Mountains has run aground.
The previous deadline was March 16, and given the massive scope of the plan, a one- or two-month extension to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to chime in would have been understandable. But with a goal to complete the plan by 2017, and $27 million of state, county and private money at stake, it is important for participants to sense that the parties are making progress.
The intent was to use this spring’s public input to formalize a blueprint addressing watersheds, wilderness, transit corridors, recreation opportunities and economic development along the Wasatch Front and Back. That blueprint would then undergo a rigorous environmental review, projected to take another two years.
As proposed last month the preliminary blueprint called for expanding areas under wilderness protection by swapping out acres more suitable for development around existing resort base areas, improving bike and pedestrian access and creating new transit connections between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and Park City.
However, the proposed transit connection linking the Wasatch Front and Back created an uproar that seems to have brought the process to a halt.
That is unfortunate. The primary focus of Mountain Accord should be on preserving the air and water quality for the growing populations that live on both sides of these majestic mountains. Economic and recreation interests should be secondary. It should be evident that if the mountain environment is compromised, the snowsport industry will also deteriorate and the economy will quickly follow.
During the recent well-attended public meetings, too much time was spent on resort and backcountry skiing impacts and not enough was spent on the environmental ramifications. Also, instead of focusing on making the best use of existing transportation corridors like Interstate 80, the discussions centered on carving out new byways into and over the mountains.
The good news, however, is that based on public reaction, organizers realized that the blueprint unveiled earlier this year has some serious flaws. But that is all the more reason to maintain the momentum of public interest and involvement.
Mountain Accord board members need to stick to a clear timetable or they will lose buy in from local governments who are already becoming skeptical about their investments of both time and money. Hopefully the Mountain Accord initiative will return to the forefront quickly with a revised, simplified plan and we can move on to the next step in the process.
The issues have not become any less urgent — the Wasatch Mountains are endangered and forging a public consensus about how to protect them is essential.
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