The peaks of the Wasatch Range stand like stone sentinels over the valleys below—silent witnesses to a burgeoning population that seeks year-round refuge amid the tranquility of these beautiful and inviting canyons and slopes.
Wasatch Front residents are fortunate to live within the very shadow of our favorite recreation destinations, but as Utah’s population continues to push against the boundaries of the valley floors, a surplus of desk-bound techies, weary urbanites and outdoor adrenaline junkies, desperate for escape from the daily grind, flee to the ever-diminishing solitude of Utah’s canyons and other wild places. As a result, “getting away from it all” becomes more difficult with each passing year.
As natives and visitors alike flock to Utah’s world-renowned ski resorts and hiking trails, the problems become evident. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, with a single lane in each direction and an overwhelming traffic burden, face an access crisis caused by too many private vehicles, resulting in a steady worsening of Salt Lake’s equally famous noxious winter air.
Save Our Canyons
Save Our Canyons is at the forefront of regional transportation planning for the Wasatch Front, focusing on “the conservation of the wildness and beauty of the Wasatch Range while acting proactively to have dependable, efficient and clean energy powered options for public transportation to the many trails and areas up and down the Wasatch Range.”
Part of Save our Canyons mission is to alleviate the car-centric burden of single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) and their negative impacts on canyon roads, airshed, watershed and wildlife in these fragile, high-altitude settings.
Carl Fisher is the executive director of Save Our Canyons. I asked him about SOCs view of an ideal transportation future for the high-density access currently being imposed on the Cottonwood Canyons, and to a slightly lesser extent, Millcreek Canyon, where a toll helps keep visitation in check and at least partially pays for the damage done by irresponsible visitors.
According to Fisher, “SOC believes that we need to do a better job of delivering people to the bases of these canyons without their vehicles. Regionally, we need to connect people to the bases of these canyons from their points of origin (airports, hotels, cities, communities) on mass transit/ridesharing. In the canyons, we should make better use of the infrastructure we have and not convert what is now open space into more parking, roads, and rail or gondola routes. We think all of those concepts should be analyzed and their actual impact understood. We think we can go a long way by simply reducing the number of vehicles via increasing vehicular occupancy, and that running more year-round buses can solve many of the issues we face.”
Several proposals over the years have attempted to circumvent a dubious future for canyon access. The Mountain Accord, for example, sought compromise between stakeholders in an unprecedented but contentious attempt at collaboration that ultimately failed. That consortium is now known as the Central Wasatch Commission.
Past ideas included rapid transit bus or light rail, monorail, gondola, toll booths, more parking lots, and even the ludicrous suggestion of digging a tunnel from Park City to Big Cottonwood Canyon, along with a trans-canyon tunnel connecting the four resorts in both canyons. The tunnel idea, once considered to be “dead and buried,” is an extraordinarily bad option with an unreasonable price tag and unthinkable environmental consequences, yet it was proposed again at a CWC meeting earlier this year. Most of the other proposals—including widening the roads—would permanently damage the canyons as well.
The Utah Department of Transportation is the state agency tasked with planning, building and maintaining Utah’s transportation infrastructure. I contacted UDOT about their master plan for the future of Wasatch Canyon transit development, but they did not respond by press time.
Fisher says UDOT supports the perpetual use of private cars over more efficient methods of delivering people to the base of the canyons. In his view, “… working with UDOT is like being given a nail gun to turn a bunch of screws. UDOT is a very roadway and car-based organization. Our view is that the canyons should be accommodating fewer cars in the future than they are today, and we need to do everything we can to keep the cars away from the canyons. We need more park and ride lots throughout the valley, we need transit service (buses, BRT or light rail) serving those locations. We need direct-to-resort bus service so Alta patrons don’t have to ride through all the Snowbird stops for example, and so dispersed users don’t make the system stop every mile up the canyon. For weekends and holidays, we think using school parking lots and perhaps during the week, using church parking lots as park and ride locations with transit service makes sense.”
The Wasatch Front faces a daunting forecast for future growth that could potentially deposit another million residents here in the next 30 years. The results of so many people using limited resources would certainly overwhelm and perhaps even destroy the very characteristics that make the canyons so alluring, so a clear vision going forward is critical. The ski resorts love the money that added visitation brings, but we risk literally loving our canyons to death. Just look at our national parks for a preview of what’s coming to a canyon near you if something isn’t done soon.