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Salt Lake City to extend pause on foothills trail project after concerns over first phase

Mahala Kephart and Kelly Goff walk Ding and Queenie on the Bonneville Shoreline Access Trail in Salt Lake City.
Mahala Kephart and Kelly Goff walk Ding and Queenie on the Bonneville Shoreline Access Trail in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall plans to review the Foothills Trail System and pause building trails.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Carl Fisher has fond memories of Salt Lake City's foothills.

A native of Davis County, he recalls biking through the foothill trails on his way to classes at the University of Utah and to his job at a downtown hotel.

He's certainly not alone in using the trails. Many hikers, bikers, runners and those just out for a leisurely stroll are often seen within the 6,000-acre Salt Lake City Foothills Natural Area daily. As the state and the city grow, more people are heading into the foothills because it's a piece of wilderness literally on the doorsteps of a large metropolitan area.

When Salt Lake City began an ambitious project to add more trails to address the popularity in the foothills, many residents were cautiously optimistic. That turned into concern when there were some trail slide offs and other issues with trails added during the first phase of the project, which began last year and wrapped up earlier this year.

"We have an amazing place. We have amazing opportunities and we just need to be wonderful stewards of this place for generations to come," Fisher said, as a hiker trotted toward the City Creek Canyon vista directly behind him.

Those concerns are why the city paused the next phase of foothill trails during the spring, according to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. She announced Tuesday that the city will extend that moratorium through at least June 1, 2022, so that city and independent consultants can further review the city's newest trails and also the future trails as a part of the Foothills Trail System Plan.

The mayor said the move will allow for better planning and to take into account concerns associated with the trails' impact on the environment.

The Foothills Trail System Plan was developed in order to address the growing number of people heading into the city's foothills, Mendenhall explained. Salt Lake City's foothills include City Creek, Emigration, the south part of Parleys and Red Butte canyons among other smaller canyons and gullies.

The first phase of the Foothills Trail System Plan focused on new trails in the central foothills between City Creek and Dry Creek canyons. It wrapped up earlier this year.

However, the city started hearing from residents concerned about the degradation of trails, which many said is the result of poor planning. For instance, Salt Lake City resident Eric Edelman, a civil engineer who studies soils and is an avid trail user, told the Salt Lake City Council on July 20 he was disappointed with what he saw as he followed the project along.

"I'm rather disturbed and saddened that Phase One has gone so poorly," he told the council in July. "These Phase One trails could not have been located in worse terrain than what they were placed in."

A path from Memory Grove into City Creek Canyon on Aug. 3. The path was one of the new foothills trails added since last year.
A path from Memory Grove into City Creek Canyon on Aug. 3. The path was one of the new foothills trails added since last year.
Carter Williams, KSL.com

Members from advocacy groups like Save Our Canyons and Save Our Foothills voiced similar concerns in recent months.

That includes Fisher, who serves as the executive director for Save Our Canyons. He said it's important that any new trail construction takes into account the various wildlife and vegetation species that call the foothills home. That's especially true as more and more people move into Utah — the fastest-growing state in the country over the past decade.

It's why Fisher argues that it's important to keep close tabs on the foothills. If the lands aren't protected, it's very possible that they could be lost forever.

"We need to keep a keen eye toward protecting these resources," Fisher said. "It's been said over and over and over again, it seems, but we really are loving these places to death. And we want to maintain a high-quality experience, a high-quality environment and high quality and high ethical stewardship for these places."

Mendenhall said Tuesday that the city decided to pause new trail construction in May as a result of the feedback but decided to continue that pause through at least mid-2022 to ensure the project takes into account building concerns over cultural and landscape issues, and to "put the environment first."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, left, talks with Save Our Canyons campaign members Dan Schelling, Hilary Jacobs and Debbie Feder after discussing the city’s plans to review the Foothills Trail System and pause building trails during a press conference at the Bonneville Shoreline Access trailhead in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Save Our Canyons campaign members thanked the mayor for paying attention and being inclusive.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, left, talks with Save Our Canyons campaign members Dan Schelling, Hilary Jacobs and Debbie Feder after discussing the city’s plans to review the Foothills Trail System and pause building trails during a press conference at the Bonneville Shoreline Access trailhead in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Save Our Canyons campaign members thanked the mayor for paying attention and being inclusive.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Tyler Fonarow, a project specialist within the Foothills Trail System, said Salt Lake City will work with three different consultants throughout the pause. One of those consultants is SWCA Environmental Consultants, which will analyze the areas where future trails may go and "maximize" conservation, according to Fonarow.

"This will include an analysis of the impact of trails on vegetation and wildlife habitats, as well as an analysis of cultural resources and strategies for their conservation," he said.

The city also plans to seek out an independent trail system consultant to review project work from the project's first phase, as well any existing concerns among current or future trails for better guidelines to adapt to new recreation patterns in the foothills.

There are no budget adjustments anticipated as a result of the pause, city leaders said.

Mendenhall said that she and other city leaders began meeting with Native American tribal leaders — due to the land's cultural and historic significance — and various groups about the foothills project after they paused construction in May. The purpose of those meetings was to learn why the first phase went awry and how they could prevent it with future trails.

City leaders "broke bread" with Native American tribal leaders and also visited important cultural sites across the city as a way for the two sides to get to know each other more, according to the mayor. She said that leaders weren't concerned about the trails on the land so far but also eager to provide feedback for future construction.

The city will now take into account more feedback from residents because of the land's impact on residents today. She's confident that more inclusive feedback will improve the Foothills Trails System Plan.

"We're in the best possible position to ensure the trails and the new trail work and natural resource protection is representative in a better way of the voices of our community," Mendenhall said.

Meanwhile, Fisher said he welcomes Salt Lake City's decision. He said city leaders reached out to him a few weeks ago and shared their plans for the next few months.

While he said there are many steps to go in the conversion process, he's convinced city leaders and project organizers are genuinely concerned about the issues brought to them by those concerns about the future of the city's foothills.

"I think the plan put forward will help us get to that vision that we've been encouraging the city to take with these foothills," Fisher said. "So we're optimistic."