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Commission moves ahead with plan for new federal designation for central Wasatch Mountains

Skiers and snowboarders flock to Brighton Resort on opening day, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Skiers and snowboarders flock to Brighton Resort on opening day, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Central Wasatch Commission plans to officially start shopping Utah's congressional delegation to carry legislation to create a new federal designation for the Wasatch canyons.

The bill would set up the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area encompassing nearly 80,000 acres, including 8,000 acres of new wilderness.

A resolution supporting the effort was unanimously adopted by commission members Monday night after a two-hour meeting.

"We are happy with the way the legislation has been worked out," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.

The legislation authorizes the U.S. Forest Service to begin negotiations with three ski resorts — Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird — for land trades.

Ralph Becker, the commission's executive director, said the resorts would trade out of high country acreage that is not developable in exchange for more land at their base for expansions or improvements.

Alta Ski Resort is not part of a proposed land exchange involving Grizzly Gulch — which some feared would jeopardize the effort.

Becker said Alta's exclusion is not ideal, but the legislation is strong enough to move forward.

"I don't think we see this as the end of the road in terms of an Alta resolution. We've literally discussed dozens of options to solve the Grizzly Gulch. This is not anybody's preferred option," he said.

In a statement on, Alta Ski Area's president and general manager, Mike Maughan, said drafters of the legislation removed Alta's inclusion in the legislation and part of a possible land trade after Alta removed some of its land in Grizzly Gulch from consideration.

FILE - First snowfall of the season in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
FILE - First snowfall of the season in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"As allowed by the Mountain Accord agreement and the federal land exchange process, Alta Ski Area has elected to remove some of its private land in Grizzly Gulch from consideration in the land exchange with the Forest Service to preserve its skiing experience for current and future Alta skiers, to maintain the flexibility to accommodate growth and preserve its snowcat skiing operations," Maughan wrote.

He added that a possible land trade involving Grizzly Gulch was conditioned on a "public transportation solution" such as a gondola or tunnel between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

"The restrictive nature of HR 5718 and its lack of provisions to help accommodate and manage the projected recreational growth in the Cottonwood Canyons are also factors which contributed to Alta’s decision to remove Grizzly Gulch from the considered land exchange process," he wrote.

In an interview, Maughan said the resort would still like to participate in the process and would consider trading other lands, but it has been excluded.

"It almost feels punitive," he said.

Becker said negotiations were able to solve a few other stumbling points in the bill, including solidifying protections for the White Pine recreation area, access to a reservoir operated by the South Despain water district and an alignment compromise for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

"I believe we have reached a point where there is a very strong consensus of support for creating the designation," he said.

Some naysayers remain, however, who object to the creation of a "another layer of federal control" in the canyons.

Gregory Schiffman and Vaughn Cox, members of the Granite Community Council, wrote a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah's congressional delegation disputing the claim of consensus.

"The local residents are ready, willing and able to participate in canyon solutions, but the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act is not the answer," they wrote.

State Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, also expressed some concern.

"Some of us are concerned this has not brought before the Legislature," she said. "We will be watching carefully."