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In our opinion: How best to address canyon congestion?

FILE — Parked cars line up near the base of Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.
FILE — Parked cars line up near the base of Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In the peak of the ski season, or on a long holiday weekend like the one we recently celebrated over Memorial Day, traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons can slow to a crawl as recreationists and sightseers form a winding parade among verdant slopes of incomparable high-country beauty. The stress that canyon users bring to that fragile landscape has been well-documented and studied for decades, but the pace of executing a master plan to manage transportation and development has been as slow, or slower, than the pace of traffic on those busy days.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service is talking about charging fees for use of popular hiking, biking and skiing trails and other amenities in the canyons, partially to reduce traffic and mostly to raise money for necessary upkeep. The plan makes sense and is worth considering, especially given the fact that we are still not close to seeing implementation of a comprehensive plan to govern overall canyon use and development.

It’s been nearly a year since the signing of the groundbreaking Mount Accord, which set forth a blueprint for handling transportation, land use and watershed management in the canyons. Not that we would expect such an ambitious endeavor to result in immediate action, but the accord is actually just the latest iteration of planning efforts that have been on various tables and up for discussion for a long time. The accord essentially grew out of the Salt Lake County Wasatch Canyons Master Plan published in 1989. Little of what that plan called for has come to fruition.

The matter is complicated — as jagged as the rocky granite cliffs that line the canyons. The stakeholders in the debate are many and varied in their respective interests. Ski resorts tangle with conservationists over expansion and improvement plans. Transportation agencies don’t always agree on the best way to manage access. The need to protect the vital watershed often clashes with plans to facilitate more recreational use, for which the demand continues to grow. Planners estimate that by 2030, traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon could approach 15,000 vehicles a day — about the same as on a stretch of interstate freeway between rush hours.

Given that, the Forest Service, which has primary jurisdiction over the canyons, is smart to contemplate ways to mediate the levels and impact of daily access. The fee structure being considered involves modest amounts that shouldn’t meet with much resistance. While we wait for implementation of a comprehensive plan for transportation, any efforts to reduce the pressure from increased use will help guarantee a trip up the canyons remains a pleasant experience.