Utah’s Wasatch Mountains have always been well known for the copious powder snow that falls on very-accessible, high quality terrain.  However, more recently it has also become notorious for the numbers of people in the canyons on those glorious powder days and in the summers as Salt Lakers head for the hills to beat the heat.  Five years ago the “Mountain Accord” process was initiated to bring all the disparate stakeholders into one organized effort to address the issues associated with current and future issues facing an already-overcrowded range.  A two-year process resulted in an actual “accord” being signed by most of the stakeholders in July 2015.  For nearly three years after it was signed not much happened with the Mountain Accord, but over the last few months there have been some developments that will undoubtedly shape the future of the Wasatch.

A new formal organization called the “Central Wasatch Commission” (CWC) was formed to be the long-term executor of the Mountain Accord process, but until recently their meetings were sporadic and inconsequential.  However, things have heated up since Spring 2018.

First, former Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker was appointed Executive Director of the Central Wasatch Commission in June.  Prior to becoming mayor Becker was an urban planner and state legislator who’s worked and played in the Wasatch for decades, and it he was a key instigator in bringing Wasatch stakeholders together in the Mountain Accord, which made him a good candidate to lead the Commission (which has been funded by the Utah state legislature).

Second, Congresswoman Mia Love has indicated her desire to introduce the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area (CWNCRA) bill during this legislative session, which would apply pressure to the CWC and the US Forest Service to execute on the new plan for the Wasatch.  Current Salt Lake County mayor Ben McAdams, who was a key player in the Accord process, is challenging Rep Love for her congressional seat and as of press time the polls show them to be in a dead heat.

Third, Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) owners reneged on their original agreement to keep Grizzly Gulch as an option for a potential land swap with the US Forest Service and instead announced their long-term intention to develop Grizzly Gulch as an extension of ASL’s terrain. Much of Grizzly Gulch (and the land going over the ridgeline into upper Solitude) was purchased by ASL in the early 2000’s, and for the last 15 years they have been conducting snow cat skiing in the Michigan City area.  Grizzly Gulch is undeveloped and has traditionally been popular intermediate backcountry terrain with its high elevation and gentle slopes, and trail-counting studies by the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has shown that the Grizzly Gulch trailhead is by far the most popular wintertime trailhead in the Central Wasatch.

Sunset on the Summer Road in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.                                                                                                                              Noah Wetzel

In a letter to the Central Wasatch Commission, ASL pointed out that they joined the Mountain Accord process in anticipation of a transportation system that would improve the traffic problems that has affected their business, primarily via an improved Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) transit system and a connection to Big Cottonwood Canyon (BCC) and ideally to Park City.  There was much talk of a publicly funded train up LCC and a tunnel to BCC, but the environmental impact and potential price tag of over a billion dollars each was too much for the community, and the 2016 bill was introduced without a concrete transportation plan. However, it did lay the groundwork for UDOT and the other players to continue to look for other transportation options, which could include additional lanes on both canyon highways, additional buses, snowsheds to alleviate avalanche-related closures, and other options, all subjected to the environmental analyses (which includes a public comment phase) before being implemented.  Additionally, state senator (and backcountry skier) Wayne Niederhauser proposed a separate $60M fund to explore transportation solutions in LCC, including adding a booth-less, high tech toll on the road.

However, these transit improvement efforts were not enough for ASL and they have doggedly pursued their efforts to develop Grizzly Gulch (and put a tram to the top of the iconic Baldy Peak, among other things).  ASL has maintained this position even as they risk being shut out of the proposed legislation and risk alienating backcountry skiers who have Alta passes and use Grizzly Gulch’s friendly terrain for human powered skiing, avalanche classes, and iconic gap jumps.  This action would jeopardize their relationship with Salt Lake City Public Utilities, which has a firm grip on the vital culinary water that the resort depends on for current and future hotel room guests and early season snowmaking and a million people depend on.  Alta Ski Lifts seems determined to forge ahead without allowing the keystone brick of Grizzly Gulch to potentially move into public lands. Additionally, Alta’s owners have also signaled their intent to try to develop Patsy Marley, which is the ridgeline between their existing permit boundary and their Grizzly Gulch land (they currently have a special use permit for avalanche control on the south facing side but the high north facing bowl is public land).  ASL also controls the parking at the top of the road and has threatened to limit the opportunities for non-resort users to park their cars there, and historically ASL has not allowed uphill traffic within the boundaries at the resort, though they have indicated willingness to allow access if they do indeed develop Grizzly.

ASL’s down-canyon neighbor Snowbird has committed to a land swap that will transfer the entirety of the ridgeline from the top of iconic Mt Superior all the way to and past Flagstaff Peak through most of the Emma ridges from Snowbird ownership Forest Service lands, and has abandoned plans for future development opportunities in the adjacent White Pine drainage, though Snowbird will likely continue development on the American Fork side of the ridge, which is in Utah county and was not part of the Mountain Accord agreement nor the bill.

Brighton ski resort will receive formal rights to the Hidden Canyon area adjacent to the Great Western chairlift, and its neighbor Solitude will also get ownership of its base area land. However, the community of Brighton is making a bid to create its own township, and it’s unclear if or how this would change the dynamic in BCC.

Vail Resorts, which owns Park City Mountain Resort and what was formerly known as The Canyons has not participated in neither the Mountain Accord process nor the Central Wasatch Commission.  Much of the land is privately owned, as is most of Deer Valley’s land.

An important aspect of the act would be the permanent settlement of the ski area boundaries; according to the 2003 forest management plan the boundaries were immutable then, and this current action is a review for realignment and then a subsequent permanence in the ski area boundaries, with the intent to avoid future land battles.

 With an incredible range looming so close to a million people the lure of the mountains has had a profound effect on the character of the land in the Wasatch.  The bill could be a historic act that would provide additional pressure for the Central Wasatch Commission, the Forest Service, and the rest of the local stakeholders in the Wasatch to actually settle on transportation issues, resort boundaries, wilderness boundaries, and special management areas.

If you are interested you can follow along with updates from the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Save Our Canyons, and the Central Wasatch Commission itself, and you can submit comments to Congressmen Curtis and Love’s offices as well.

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Tom Diegel

What innovation would you (realistically) like to see that might be beneficial to backcountry skiing?

I very much love my thermos of tea (and consider it to be a bit of a safety feature for its warming capabilities), and I think I would also love a “food thermos” so I could enjoy hot snacks and sammies while ogling my nice tracks.

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