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No more status quo for Wasatch Canyons?

Transportation, toilets and trails in urgent need of attention

People take in the view from the restaurant at the top of Snowbird as members of two legislative bodies tour areas of Snowbird and Solitude to learn more about the proposed federal designation by Wasatch Canyons Commission on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.
People take in the view from the restaurant at the top of Snowbird as members of two legislative bodies tour areas of Snowbird and Solitude to learn more about the proposed federal designation by Wasatch Canyons Commission on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SNOWBIRD — Chris McCandless hopped on a chair with a spectacular view of the jagged peak of Mount Superior behind him, urging the need for greater stewardship of Little Cottonwood Canyon and its neighbor, Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Failing to take action to solve problems with the trails, transportation and toilets will leave an unwanted legacy, he warned.

“That is my personal holy grail, Mount Superior,” he said. “The status quo will be what we get and hand off to our future.”

McCandless, chairman of the Central Wasatch Commission, was among those who led a tour for some legislative members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee and the Federalism Commission on Monday to sites in both Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood canyons.

All sides, he emphasized, need to come together to “solve a 40-year-old war” among multiple groups that advocate for a variety of competing interests — from transportation improvements, ski resort expansion, conservation and protection of the watershed to environmental safeguards to preserve backcountry areas and recreation hotspots.

“We have to make this work because there is so much at stake,” McCandless said, moments after a ride on the Snowbird tram conveying a couple dozen visitors to facilities at Hidden Peak.

The commission earlier this summer unveiled its fourth draft of possible federal legislation that seeks establishment of a national recreation and conservation area, with an eye to what its proponents say will help solve some of the issues challenging the Wasatch canyons.

Despite its many iterations, there remain critics to the proposal who say the designation is an unnecessary layer of more federal bureaucracy and paperwork that falls short of solving critical transportation problems.

In an earlier briefing in the boardroom of the Metropolitan Water District’s offices, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, said it is premature to call the proposal federal legislation because no member of Utah’s congressional delegation has agreed to be its sponsor.

The commission’s executive director, Ralph Becker, agreed with Snider’s point, but said he is hopeful the kinks in the bill can be massaged and it will be ready for introduction in Congress.

While everyone agrees there are big issues to solve in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, the path to getting there is what remains a point of contention.

Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he’s been blocked in at his home because of the endless miles of traffic heading into the canyons on a good powder day.

Over the years, the Utah Legislature appropriated money for more sophisticated avalanche control measures in which explosions are detonated via remote control, and also chipped in more than $60 million to address traffic issues.

“No more cars can fit up here,” he said.

Niederhauser said the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon is the most dangerous in the country because of its avalanche activity, with 20 “chutes” that are pathways for massive amounts of snow to come tumbling down.

“The last thing you want is cars parked in an avalanche,” he said, referring to the often hourslong trek up the canyon because of the traffic.

Niederhauser ran, and got passed, legislation that would allow electronic, variable tolling in the canyon to encourage multiperson occupancy in vehicles through pricing.

“It is tolling and we hate it, but it is a reality,” he said.

Implementing tolling, however, is on hold given a directive of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., according to Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

While tolling has been effective in Millcreek Canyon and American Fork Canyon, Whittekiend said that option, plus a slew of other transportation solutions, are being studied as part of a couple expansive studies underway by the Utah Department of Transportation in cooperation with the Central Wasatch Commission.

In the briefing, Whittekiend whirled off an array of statistics to underscore the enormity of the challenges facing the Wasatch canyons.

The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, he said, covers 2.1 million acres and hosts nearly 11 million visitors a year.

“If we were a national park, we would be the second-most visited national park in the country,” he said, adding that at any given moment, there is someone doing something, somewhere on the forest.

The forest gets more visitors than Grand Canyon National Park, which has a budget of $75 million, while his budget is about $25 million.

Whittekiend said the forest invokes the help of the nation’s largest volunteer force in a U.S. forest, but the resource issues are eclipsed by the mass of humanity that recreates on the land.

The new toilets at Silver Lake are the first to be installed in 20 to 30 years, and he estimated the forest needs twice the existing number overall.

On one day over Memorial Day weekend at American Fork Canyon’s Tibble Fork, the Forest Service went through 239 rolls of toilet paper, he added.

Whittekiend also stressed that the absence of toilets does not stop people from going to the bathroom, which is a huge threat for a watershed directly serving 360,000 users.

In addition to the too-few toilets and maintenance needed on trails, Big Cottonwood Canyon also has its own congestion problems.

On Tuesday, Solitude ski resort announced it will implement tiered and “preferential” parking fees to encourage carpooling, effective beginning this ski season.

For vehicles with only one or two occupants, the price will be $20, for three occupants $10 and $5 for vehicles with four occupants or more.

The resort is also leasing four, 15-passenger shuttle vans from the Utah Transit Authority to transport staff seven days a week, which take an additional 60 cars out of the canyon each day, according to a press release. A piece of property on the west end of the Moonbeam parking lot has been reconfigured to accommodate approximately 200 more vehicles.

For those winter enthusiasts who want to find a carpool partner, the resort said it is also investing in the development of a ride-sharing app that will include incentives for teaming up to reduce congestion and pollution. More details on that will be released in the fall.

“We are using every tool at our disposal to encourage our staff and guests to use public transportation and to develop carpooling habits,” said Solitude President and CEO Kim Mayhew.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, whose district covers Big Cottonwood Canyon, said she is no stranger to the issue of crowded canyons. She was a self-described ski bum up Little Cottonwood Canyon years ago, and her husband still works as a ski patrol director there.

She said she did some hiking in Little Cottonwood Canyon Sunday and there were cars parked up and down the highway.

Last year’s ample snow season caused traffic problems that spilled into the cities below, she said, necessitating a police escort for her children to get to school on multiple occasions.

“It’s gotten out of control,” she said.

McCandless, who said he used to backcountry ski the canyons every chance he got, now travels to the Manti-La Sal National Forest because there’s fewer people.

Mike Maughan, general manager and president of Alta Ski Area, said fixing transportation problems is crucial, pointing out a 40% increase in visitation since 2000 while existing with the same amount of parking with the same road.

Although an aerial tram is being studied as an option to move people up and down the canyons, Niederhauser said the local politics of siting a parking structure to hold 5,000 cars is rife with community opponents.

The sad thing, he added, is that people come from all over the world to visit the greatest snow on Earth” because the resorts are an hour from the Salt Lake City International Airport.

“They can see it, they just can’t get there,” he said. “They’re stuck in traffic.”