Invariably, when Utah is ranked as a top state for business in surveys like the one recently released by Forbes Magazine, the existence of easily accessible recreation opportunities is mentioned as a major factor in attracting new enterprises. That’s why the process underway to guide development in the canyons of the Wasatch Front is critical to the state’s economic future.
An ongoing planning process known as the Mountain Accord has wisely brought together groups representing broad and often competing interests to help map out future use scenarios in the mountains between I-80 and Little Cottonwood Canyon. It is particularly important that groups representing backcountry recreation interests have been given a seat at that table, on equal footing with organizations representing traditional resort-based interests.
A point of conflict in the discussion will be the proposed One Wasatch plan to link all seven ski and snowboarding resorts along the Wasatch by new lifts and other conveyances. The plan is heavily backed by organizations like Ski Utah, and is vigorously opposed by organizations like Save Our Canyons, both of which are part of the Mountain Accord.
Traditional thinking has been that what’s good for the ski industry is good for the state’s economy. But Save Our Canyons and other groups have lobbied effectively to point out that preservation of undeveloped areas for year-round recreation is also important, for environmental and economic purposes.
Having world-class ski resorts minutes away from an urban center is an obvious attribute, but surveys of newly located businesses consistently include mention of the value of convenient access to wilderness areas open to hiking, mountain biking and winter recreation. The challenge to planners seeking long-term guidelines for best use of the central Wasatch is to make sure there is adequate balance between the two.
An inter-connected resort complex may bring increased revenue associated with the travel and tourism industries, and to the resorts themselves. But access to undeveloped open space is central to the “quality of life” metrics used when companies look for places where they can attract qualified workers.
Achieving balance won’t be easy. Evidence of that lies in the wording of the initial list compiled by the Mountain Accord of the things that would create an “ideal” future. One of them reads: “Creates mountain connection via rail between Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back, or alternately no mountain connection.”
The language suggests that accommodating both resort and backcountry interests is an either-or proposition. It isn’t. Both sides would agree that balance currently exists, though they may argue over which way it tilts. Reaching consensus on how best to ensure future balance will require a hard look at things like resort-expansion and new transportation infrastructure.
And it will require balance in the chorus of voices who are part of the planning conversation, which is why those in charge of the Mountain Accord deserve praise for striving for a result that is both comprehensive and inclusive.