A new day is dawning for the Wasatch backcountry. This is a unique time in our history to either preserve key backcountry areas, lose them, or both. Make sure your voice is heard, stay involved with Mountain Accord.
February 23, 2015
As most of you probably know by now, the Mountain Accord process has been going on for about a year, and the first big phase is ending with an important public comment period. The process and issues are pretty complex, so in order to help you make your opinion an educated one, we’ve provided a summary below to help make these issues more clear. There have been earlier lackluster calls for public comment, but this time we are convinced that your feedback will have a profound effect on this process.
Q: What is the Mountain Accord?
A: Mountain Accord is a coalition of cities, counties, water districts, non-profits, ski resorts, and concerned citizens that have come together to address trends in the Central Wasatch associated with high levels of use that are only projected to intensify as our population – and the popularity of these mountains – grows.
Q: I’ve heard about the “System Groups.” What are those?
A: The Mountain Accord was divided into four sub-groups: Environment, Economic, Recreation, and Transportation. Theoretically they all have an equal voice/impact in the planning process. The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has representatives on each group.
Q: What has been the process?
A: Each system group had monthly meetings and within each group there were subcomittees that also met in between those meetings. Each group worked to identify existing conditions, trends, problems, and possible solutions.
Q: I’ve heard about the Mountain Accord “Executive Committee”; what is that, who’s on it, and what has been their role?
A: The Executive Committee participants were identified as local leaders who wouldn’t necessarily be involved in the details but had the knowledge to evaluate the findings of the Systems Groups and provide final guidance. They did not necessarily act on the recommendations/findings of the system groups, particularly those of the Environment and Recreation groups. Here is a link to the list of Executive Committee members: http://mountainaccord.com/contact/
Q: Ok, got that. Now what is this “Blueprint” that I’m supposed to read, understand, and comment on?
A: Each of the System Groups created their “idealized systems” and the Executive committee -with the help of a team of consultants – brought them together to create the Blueprint that was unveiled on February 4, 2015. This document was the latest attempt to create a plan that would address many of the issues associated with increased use of the Central Wasatch.
Q: I thought a “blueprint” was a final call to action; is that what this is?
A: “Blueprint is a misnomer here. This is a broad-brush plan. The EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) will have more specifics, and there will be additional comment periods associated with the EIS. But this is the plan that will be the baseline for the EIS IF if gets broad public support.
Q: What are the major issues that will affect me?
A: There are some major proposals that will affect our ability to go up the tri-canyons, travel between the canyons, affect the existing balance of resort and backcountry terrain, and have effects on the watersheds.
Q: Wow. Major issues indeed! I’ve heard about a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon; what’s up with that?
A: LCC has been a focus of the transportation discussions because of the well-known traffic problems associated with the popularity of Alta and Snowbird, the steepness of the road, and the fact that there are ~20 slide paths that the road passes beneath. The Mountain Accord likes to talk about “Fixed Guideways,” which could be a dedicated bus lane (i.e. widening the road) or indeed a train. The representatives on the Transportation committee really like trains; they have proven effective in other mountain environments.
Q: Putting a train up LCC sounds like a huge deal! Where would it be located, will the road still be there, and will cars still be allowed?
A: The alignment is yet to be determined, but because of the effect on the creek it’s likely going to be intimately related to the road, the train would NOT replace the road, and private vehicles could continue to be allowed.. It’s intended to be connected to the existing Trax line. No major adjacent parking structure locations have been located.
Q: Will it stop at White Pine trailhead, much less at the Y Couloir or the Coalpit exit? And will it have as many stops at Snowbird as the bus does so it takes a long time to get to the Alta backcountry trailheads?
A: At this point those questions have not been answered.
Q: How much would it cost to build and to ride the proposed train?
A: The analysis done by the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance indicates that it would likely cost upwards of a billion dollars to put in the train! Local officials would be counting on federal money coming in for that, but essentially it would be taxpayer-funded. The user fee has not been discussed.
Q: How would it affect the watershed?
A: We do not know. This would have to go through a comprehensive NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process to vet the suitability.
Q: Most importantly, will I be able to use it for dawn patrols and morning half-days at Alta?
A: At this point details such as number of trains, train cars, schedules, time up or down canyon, etc. are unknown to anyone. While public transit options can be more efficient than cars in densely populated urban areas, mass transit systems have a more difficult time achieving the same level of flexibility that the individual cars can.
Q: What about optimizing the bus system?
A: Creating a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) “system” (an extra lane) on the LCC road has been discussed as well, but details have not been investigated.
Q: What about snowsheds to protect the road from avalanches?
A: This seems like a viable option, and a billion dollars might get a lot of snowsheds and then some. This has not been seriously considered.
Q: What does the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance think about a train in LCC?
A: While we are not unanimous on this, most of the Board feels that an LCC train does not service dispersed backcountry users and as such we do not necessarily support it. The train would essentially be a new tool to get the additional resort skiers to Alta and Snowbird that they anticipate will visit their resorts in the future. The resorts are frustrated by the avalanche control work and weather that creates traffic problems, and feel the current resort parking is inadequate.
Alta and Snowbird are VERY keen for a taxpayer-subsidized transit system, and they prefer the train option.
Q: What about Big Cottonwood Canyon transit?
A: Enhanced and year-round bus transit systems are the only option being considered to enhance BCC traffic.
Q: How about Parley’s Canyon?
A: While rail has been discussed as a way to connect Salt Lake City to Park City, at this point enhanced bus service is the only option being considered, and that is at a lower priority level than the LCC/BCC options.
Q: And Mill Creek?
A: A likely and short-term action item is that a private, year-round shuttle bus system will be implemented for Mill Creek Canyon.
Q: OK, I got the up-canyon transport deal. What about these tunnels that I’ve heard about?
A: The LCC and BCC ski resorts want tunnels to connect the heads of the two canyons. There are 1,200 miles of mining tunnels between American Fork and Park City. However, none of these tunnels could be used, so a totally-new tunnel would be bored. From a geologic/engineering perspective this is very viable.
Q: Who wants tunnels, and why?
A: If the resorts do not get their lift-served ONE Wasatch – and it’s likely they will not; more on that later – they still want interconnectivity, so they are pushing hard for the tunnels. The Mountain Accord’s Economic System Group pushed hard for the tunnels as a means to create a more “vibrant economy” (in their terms). On the contrary, the advocacy group Friends Of Alta does not want to see the unique character of their town changed dramatically by a tunnel connecting LCC and BCC.
Q: Will this benefit backcountry skiers?
A: Yes….and no. It would enhance the ability to do canyon to canyon tours, but it would also enable resort skiers to hike out of bounds, ski backcountry shots, and then go back to their origin without getting back up to the ridgeline, thereby putting even more pressure on some of the most-popular backcountry areas.
It is basically an underground resort Interconnect.
Q: How much will this cost? How will it be funded?
A: Again, it would likely be expensive to build (another $1 billion?), but no one knows for sure, nor how much it would cost riders to use the system.
Q: A billion dollars each for the tunnel and the train? That sounds like a ton of money! Is it?
A: For reference, the Utah Legislature is working this week on the annual overall state budget. It is $14.4B $1B is $500 for every Utahn. The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is not a taxpayer advocacy group by any means, but we are concerned about massive public financing to assist for-profit businesses.
Q: I’ve heard that a tunnel is being justified as an emergency-escape route for the Cottonwood Canyons? Is that needed?
A: An alternate access to the heads of the canyons has been used as justification. Ski Utah pointed out last week that during one of the Christmas 2014 storms people were still stuck in LCC at 9 p.m. on one busy day. Beyond this “emergency” we are unaware of any other emergencies in the last 40 years that would necessitate an alternate escape route.
Q: Will it affect groundwater/watershed?
A: Like the train, it would be subjected to the NEPA process, and SLC’s water department would be very attentive to this.
Q: Ok, enough about transportation. I’ve heard about this Cottonwood Canyons Task Force and some big deals in the making. What is up with that?
A: The CCTF is a specialized subcommittee with representatives from the ski resorts, Save Our Canyons, Mayor Ralph Becker, and other members of the Executive Committee. Mountain Accord created this committee to address the growing controversy of ONE Wasatch and the committee developed proposals for land swaps for conservation AND resort area development. EVERYONE who cares about the Wasatch backcountry should read the proposal carefully. Read the expanded proposal HERE.
Q: Well, what’s the deal?
A: In a nutshell:
- Brighton would be able to formally take control of Hidden Canyon, an area north/west of the Great Western chairlift, and put a chair from there up towards the top of Great Western (NOT towards 10,420). There would also be a lift connecting Brighton and Solitude.
- Snowbird gets full access into Mary Ellen (with a vision to get all the way down into American Fork Canyon/Tibble Fork) and significantly “gives” the entire ridgeline from the Emmas to the top of Superior to the public, providing permanent protection to both the front and backsides of the ridge. They are also willing to NOT take upper White Pine.
- Snowbird also already has been permitted for many new hotel rooms
- Solitude would be able to re-configure the chairlift that currently goes up from the bottom of Honeycomb Canyon straight up the hillside to go up Honeycomb Canyon. Depending on the configuration and location of the top of the lift, this will likely put upper Silver Fork into Solitude side country.
- Alta gets significant base development options, but is currently unwilling to cede their plans for Grizzly Gulch. As an alternative to Grizzly Gulch they want to be able to put a chairlift up towards Tuscarora. Depending on the lift configuration and top elevation, this would essentially make not only Grizzly Gulch but also Wolverine Cirque and Catherine Pass at least Alta’s side country, if not full ski resort terrain. At this point this is, according to Mountain Accord, still “undecided and under consideration,” which we feel is unacceptable moving forward.
Q: So what does all that mean for the much-vaunted ONE Wasatch?
A: ONE Wasatch as it’s been advertised (five new chairlifts connecting the resorts) would not happen as currently envisioned by Ski Utah. However, creating a taxpayer-funded tunnel between LCC and BCC would effectively create the key connection that Ski Utah desires. In conjunction with the proposed Honeycomb Lift alignment and Alta’s proposed Grizzly Gulch or Tuscarora chairlifts resort skiers – for better or for worse – would be able to ski from one resort to another and return via train/tunnel.
If another taxpayer-funded tunnel was created between BCC and Park City it would be combined with (formerly) The Canyons’ 9990 lift and Vail’s proposed Pioneer Ridge chairlift; therefore most of the PC ridgeline and its sub-drainages – which offer some of the easiest-access, safest, and therefore most-popular backcountry areas – would also become de facto ski resort terrain.
Q: I see on the Blueprint that there’s a proposal for an aerial tramway between Big Cottonwood and Park City. Is this a new Ski Link?
A: This has been an on-again, off-again part of the Mountain Accord deal. The concept of having PC linked to Big Cottonwood is controversial.
Q: Does that maintain the balance of backcountry and ski resort terrain in the Wasatch?
A: In a word: NO. The ski resorts are basically being given the opportunity to expand and connect their resorts and potentially, dramatically increase the resorts’ footprint in the upper Cottonwoods. If the Grizzly Gulch/Tuscarora issue is not resolved, this comes at the expense of some of the highest-value backcountry terrain that the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance endeavored to identify with the Mountain Accord committees.
Q: Yikes! That’s sounds bad for the backcountry community. Is there good news?
A: The fact that Snowbird is willing to cede so much terrain to permanent protection (and the Mountain Accord has created a new task force to determine the best designation vehicle to ensure appropriate protection levels) is a great start. Alta has been digging in their heels on their privately-owned lands, but much of their existing terrain is on Forest Service-leased land, so there has to be some give and take. And some of the backcountry impacts of the proposed chairs could be mitigated by lift alignments and top elevations.
One very positive, and short-term actionable item is that there is a commitment to creating a comprehensive trails network in the upper Cottonwoods for summertime use.
Q: I know that snowmaking is a big deal for the resorts to put down an early season base. Is that part of the deal?
A: Yes. Under the Cottonwoods agreement the resorts all are assured more water for snowmaking. And water is one of the most highly valued resources in the Cottonwood Canyons.
Q: What about all the recent purchases of the local ski resorts? How does that affect this process?
A: Vail has purchased PCMR for $182M and has committed another $50M to upgrades and connecting to the Canyons. Deer Valley has purchased Solitude, and Brighton will likely be for sale within the next year. The three PC resorts are acutely-aware that their resorts already get less snow than their Cottonwood counterparts and that global warming is a reality. They will continue to be aggressive in their development into the upper Cottonwoods, which puts even more pressure on this Mountain Accord process.
Q: Can you give me a summary of who gets what?
The resorts get:
- Additional terrain to expand into.
- Ability to put in new chairlifts
- Much greater ability to dramatically expand their base facilities (Alta in particular)
- Additional snowmaking capabilities
- Taxpayer-subsidized mass transit up and between the canyons.
- Possibly-expanded side-country
The backcountry community gets:
- Permanent protection of the Emma-Superior ridgeline
- 250 acres near Guardsman Pass.
- Shuttle up Mill Creek canyon
- An enhanced top-of-canyon trail network
- An assurance that the resorts aren’t actually taking as much terrain as they think they could/should.
Q: Ok, now I’ve got a bit of background info and feel ready to comment; what should I do?
A: It is absolutely imperative that you either go to http://mountainaccord.com/get-involved/ to review the plans. We do not recommend using the survey as our members have reported major glitches. Please send your thoughts on the Blueprint and the Task Force proposals in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5/1/15 (the deadline has been extended). There is still time. Don’t forget to comment! The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance feels that the survey itself is vaguely worded and misleading, so we encourage our members to speak with their own voice.
For more information you can also attend the three open house events:
Park City Q&A and Open House
February 24, 2015, 6 – 8:30 p.m.
Park City High School Lecture Hall
(Previously scheduled at the Black Box Theater)
1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City
Salt Lake Open House
February 25, 2015, 6 – 8:30 p.m.
Skyline High School
3251 East 3760 South, SLC
Wasatch County Community Meeting
TBD (Previously scheduled for Feb. 26)
Q: Can you give me an idea of what to say?
A: Tell Mountain Accord what you think of the essential elements of the “Blueprint”:
- Do you think that there is appropriate balance between development and preservation? What do you think that balance should look like?
- What you think about expanded ski resort footprints – be specific about each of Brighton’s, Alta’s, Snowbirds, and Solitude’s plans.
- What you think about the development or protection of Grizzly Gulch, including Alta’s proposed plan B lift up Tuscarora (instead of Grizzly Gulch)
- Speak to maintaining the existing balance of developed and undeveloped backcountry terrain. Include what you think about proposed positive backcountry protections (Superior to Emma Ridge, Guardsman Pass, etc.).
- Economic vibrancy and enhanced recreation opportunities are as integral to (fast-growing) backcountry community as they are to the (flat-to-declining) ski resorts
- How you feel about an aerial tramway between PC/BCC?
- Whether or not you support the concept of a train up LCC (and would use it),
- Whether or not you support the concept of a designated bus lane up LCC
- Whether or not you support the concept of enhanced, year-round bus transit up BCC
- Emphasize that whatever canyon transit system is studied/implemented must account for dispersed users
- Tell them what you think of tunnels connecting the upper reaches of the canyons and who – if any – that will benefit
- Ask about the funding of these ambitious public works projects
- Provide advocacy/support of the already-identified lands to be preserved in perpetuity and adding to that count.
- Provide advocacy/support to the notion of an expanded trails network
- Fragile watershed integrity is of paramount importance