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What trail is nature on?

There will come a time, in a decade or so, when the air along the Wasatch Front is browner than ever; when another 100 square miles of Utah's disappearing farmland is paved for streets, shopping centers and subdivisions; when reservations will be required for a campsite almost anyplace in the state.

The future is now, in fact, as current and perhaps unstoppable trends steamroll along at a rate that suggests Utah's natural environment in another 10 years won't be so natural.In the meantime:

- Opposing factions stubbornly fight a never-ending battle over the fate of southern Utah wilderness.

- No consensus exists on how to manage the state's most popular national forest lands.

- A budding movement to preserve open space lags behind efforts in other Western states.

As Utah's political machine lurches along in a haphazard and late-coming attempt to address such issues, the state's population booms and sprawls, threatening one of the very things that make Utah so livable - its great outdoors.

"The development pressures are relentless," said Mike Seig, the Salt Lake district ranger for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which sits adjacent to Utah's four most urban counties and counts more recreation visitors annually than Yellowstone National Park.

Seig and other federal land managers in northern Utah find themselves increasingly lobbied by interests jockeying for a claim to public recreation sites with near-priceless values, especially should they be privately developed into resort-style attractions.

Every other week or so, Seig's office gets a proposal for a land exchange along the lines of the one arranged earlier this year by Earl Holding, the Sinclair Oil magnate. He got Congress to approve a land swap that deeded to Holding national forest land for his Olympic Games expansion of Snowbasin Ski Resort.

"When do we get ours?" is the question other ski areas have since asked Seig. He also hears from other, smaller developers trying to get a foot in the door by offering trades for less-desirable, privately owned real estate.

"They say, `Just give me five acres. We'll go get whatever you want.' "

Simultaneously, the Forest Service's mountain canyons just above Salt Lake County bear heavier and more damaging use than ever. As recreation technology changes, hiking and mountain-biking trails are further eroded by new arrivals in the guise of skateboarders and in-line skaters outfitted with backcountry equipment.

Overall, use in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest has increased at about 1 percent per quarter during the past few years, and projections are the rate will be maintained for the foreseeable future.

Water: the lifeblood

Streams that feed culinary water supplies hint at a growing degradation of this environment already. Creeks flowing out of canyons that include Millcreek, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood are still pristine by any standard, but they show coliform-count increases in some cases of 100 percent since 1990.

"It's an indicator that something is happening," said Florence Reynolds, the water quality and treatment administrator for Salt Lake City Public Utilities, explaining that such data measure the presence of enteric bacteria produced by warm-blooded animals (read: humans and their dogs).

The political clout of downstream users - county governments, city halls and water districts - will undoubtedly always throw its weight behind efforts to protect its historically sacrosanct watersheds. But Seig said any widely shared vision for the ambience of tomorrow's Wasatch Mountain canyons remains unformed.

"We need some public consensus on what we want our canyons to look like," Seig said, offering by way of example a recent proposal by Solitude Ski Resort to build a summertime alpine water slide in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

"Is that an appropriate use?" Seig asks, wondering whether the sort of "Disneyland" development associated with Park City might ultimately be established on still relatively untrammeled public lands.

Recreational water

Should current trends prevail, already congested weekends at popular boating spots such as Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs and Lake Powell will, in 10 years, become more like dodging traffic on I-15 and less like a tranquil weekend escape.

"It's going to be extraordinarily crowded," said Ted Stewart, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources. "Everybody who buys a boat between now and then will be competing with all those people already out there."

Though culinary-water managers say the metropolitan Salt Lake City area has enough water to supply current growth until about 2008 or 2010, the demand for new sources will mean developing one of two now-untapped rivers: the Jordan as it runs through Salt Lake County, or the Bear, where it spills into the Great Salt Lake near Brigham City.

"People will oppose it no matter which one goes," said D. Larry Anderson, director of the state's Division of Water Resources. He said construction of a dam on the Bear would probably rally the environmental community and taking water from the Jordan would alienate duck hunters and others who want the river preserved as a wetland.

Other hunters and outdoor enthusiasts will notice a difference, too, if Utah's population continues its explosion.

"We'll have less wildlife because of all the destruction of habitat," said Stewart. "And camping spots will be hard to come by. Reservations probably will be required on all Forest Service and BLM lands."

A rural-urban battle

Utah's ever-shifting boundary between rural and urban will continue to move, swallowing up former pasturelands as it goes unless today's trends are slowed.

"Open space will be at a very high premium along the Wasatch Front," Stewart said.

Money would help soften the blow.

Stewart said state legislators must soon show a commitment to improving the state's existing 29 parks and adding some new ones. Utah's park system for some years has had little more than a bare-maintenance budget to get by on.

To curb the disappearance of greenbelts in towns and cities, a metamorphosis in values is also called for.

"Open space is going to have to become an ethic in every community," Stewart said, though he conceded that without public dollars it is difficult to arrange conservation easements on private lands that are now susceptible to urban development.

Examples of the unremitting march of progress are plentiful.

New construction during the 1990s swallowed up much of southern and western Salt Lake County, the Snyderville Basin of Summit County and former vast farmlands in Davis County.

Two private movements have begun aggressively promoting conservation easements, though both are so cash-strapped that progress has been slow.

Such programs keep urbanization at bay by buying up development rights and are motivated by the growing loss of privately owned green space. Evidence of this appears in data from the Governor's Office of Planning & Budget, which logged the annual loss of Utah open lands in 1995-97 at eight square miles and predicted it will increase to nine square miles a year by 2008.

Little public awareness exists about such numbers. Perhaps that explains why open space is often and widely taken for granted, said Dave Livermore, the state director for the Nature Conservancy.

Livermore lamented the relative absence of emphasis placed on Utah's natural qualities when the state pushed for and won rights to host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"People talk about how Utah earned the Olympics because of our quality of life and work ethic," Livermore said. "What they leave out is the mountains and landscape and outdoors itself, which had more than a little to do with getting the Olympics."

At stake in the state's growth boom is Utah's beauty and its very livability, say Livermore and others who advocate a greenbelt ethic like those subsidized by state or local governments in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.

Managing or mandating

Most of the effort now is done by groups like Livermore's. The Nature Conservancy perennially scratches for money to buy lands considered vital for their natural properties. The conservancy earlier this year launched its Utah Land Legacy campaign, naming 60 sites it wanted to buy at a price of $14.5 million. The first purchase of the push has yet to be realized, however.

Even Gov. Mike Leavitt has called for broader public support, and Stewart said it's time for lawmakers either to begin appropriating money to buy conservation easements or to allow local communities to levy taxes to underwrite the programs.

The state Legislature, however, has been loath to allow such home rule. Its members in recent times have adhered to a strict double standard: Lawmakers refuse to give cities and counties much leeway in levying new taxes to help manage growth, even as those same legislators complain about Washington's unwillingness to permit more state say in how Utah is managed.

Politics, then, is one sizable obstacle to adopting better development controls, a fact realized last year by Utah Open Lands executive director Wendy Fisher. She lobbied for a legislative bill that would have given local governments the right to raise tax money to spend on greenbelt acquisitions.

The bill was narrowly defeated, a sign that state lawmakers are still only beginning to wake up to what Fisher and others say is a crisis.

"There are a lot of warm-and-fuzzy quality-of-life things you can say about preserving open land, but people are kidding themselves if they don't think one reason everyone else is moving here is because THEIR communities are becoming unlivable," Fisher said.

Fisher's group since its creation in 1990 has been surprisingly effective, arranging conservation easements in perpetuity on some $16 million worth of real estate. The organization has accomplished that on an annual budget of $55,000, virtually all of its success based on tax breaks guaranteed landowners for their cooperation. If the effort were backed by the kind of money it takes to actually buy property, thousands more acres would have been set aside by now.

Fisher said numerous models exist for public initiatives on open space, including ones in Oregon; Marin County, Calif.; and Boulder, Colo.

Costly consequences

Increasing human effects on the landscape aren't limited to the Wasatch Front.

Walt Dabney, supervisor of Canyonlands and Arches national parks, said that as time goes by fights will become more heated over whether some national park boundaries should be expanded to protect ecosystems from uses that range from oil exploration to off-road-vehicle derbies. The parks themselves will keep getting more crowded.

While annual visitation at Arches and Canyonlands is about 1.4 million today, it will probably exceed 2 million in 10 years.

How can a pair of already crowded parks handle such numbers?

By reconfiguring traffic and enforcing a visitation ceiling in some areas.

Arches plans to rebuild its main entrance so that cars don't back up onto U.S. 191 as they do today. It also plans to add to its collection of already overflowing parking lots.

Expect also to take a number for access to sites like Delicate Arch in the future. Surveys show that most tourists don't want to march in a solid procession to the popular spot and then share it with 500 other people. The precedent has already been set: In Canyonlands, backcountry use is restricted by permit.

Public and private

As such parks grapple with growing numbers of humans, so do adjacent private lands.

When Arches and Canyonlands were "discovered" by the fashionable masses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the limelight created a local boom in real estate and retail commerce that shows no sign of abating and will likely double the town's population to 12,000 within a decade.

"The reality is that in places like Moab, more's going to happen," Dabney said, adding that many such towns are ill-prepared to manage such pressures and historically have shown reluctance to do so anyway.

"It doesn't seem to be real difficult for someone with money and a development idea to come in and get variances or zoning changes."

Leadership is what's called for, said Mark Walsh, associate director of the Utah Association of Counties, which lobbies state government on behalf of county governments across the state.

"Our elected officials have an opportunity now to do something," said Walsh, who pointed to some small starts that have been made already.

He noted a pilot program kicked off six years ago that was aimed at helping rural governments implement local development-management plans, an unheard of thing in some quarters.

In southern Utah's Wayne County, for instance, houses as recently as 1991 could be built without a permit, a freedom available in only a handful of counties in the entire country.

Walsh said change is hampered by traditional notions of land use in Utah, where private property rights are considered sacred in no small part because the federal government owns most of the state.

"Leadership is now suggesting - at all levels - that we need a plan," Walsh said.

The only trouble is that nobody can agree on what the plan should be.

The dispute over federally designated wilderness embodies the problem: While some interests, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, promote setting aside 5.7 million acres, or about 10 percent of the state, Utah's most stalwart political figures want less.

The fight has raged for years already, and the stalemate continues. Wilderness advocates have enlisted outside support and built a strong local following too, as Utah's demographics shift steadily toward urban, weekend recreationists who are often easy converts to SUWA's viewpoint.

"My dream is to put ourselves out of business by accomplishing our goals," said SUWA spokesman Scott Groene, who sees the impasse solved only through a sea change in political sensibilities in the Beehive State.

"One big change you'll see in the year 2008 is a much greener congressional delegation," Groene said.

The air is getting browner

As the state's land and water are put under increasing human pressures, so is its air.

Park City - a former enclave of alpine purity - has implemented wood-burning restrictions to ease air pollution trapped by winter inversions that were unheard of before 1990.

In Salt Lake City and Utah and Davis counties, cold-weather conditions that create infamous clouds of pollution from Provo to Layton will only grow worse unless some progress is made toward controlling the sources.

Looking toward the future, Ursula Truman, the state's director of the Division of Air Quality, sees "more cars, more buildings, more people."

Without new restrictions - like the controversial ones proposed recently by the Clinton administration - "our air will certainly be browner than it is."

The good news is that air-quality regulators have had some past success; air along the Wasatch Front is not as dirty as it was in the 1970s, thanks to cleaner-burning fuels and more efficient combustion processes.

What the air has in common with open space, wildlife, wilderness and water is that its future hinges finally on fundamental questions about what kind of world Utah's people want to live in.

Livermore, the Nature Conservancy executive, said Utah native novelist and journalist Wallace Stegner offered in his writings one valuable clue about the best fate for the state.

What Stegner hoped for, said Livermore, is what many Utahns want: "A civilization to match our scenery."

In this, there is much agreement.

The hard part is deciding whose definition of civilization should prevail.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Issues Utahns are very concerned about:

Preserving Utah's suburban lifestyles 21%

Utah's economy 43%

Transportation 50%

Housing 39%

Education 66%

Crime 66%

Human services 40%

*Environment 38%

Preserving Utah's traditional rural lifestyles 30%