Questions continue to dog possible federal designation for the Wasatch

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    COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — A major player in a proposed federal land swap that grew out of the Mountain Accord process withdrew its participation, with Alta Ski Area pulling the 1,200-acre Grizzly Gulch area from the deal.

    Ralph Becker, the executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission, told executive committee board members Thursday that negotiations among key players like the ski resort, the U.S. Forest Service and others had reached an impasse.

    “They want to maintain the ability to develop that land in the future,” Becker said.

    A crane stands over a construction project near Alta Ski Resort in Alta on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

    Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

    A crane stands over a construction project near Alta Ski Resort in Alta on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

    As a result, executive committee members deferred action on the legislative proposal and instead punted it back to the full commission for further consideration.

    Although there will be “continued dialogue” in another round of discussions, Becker said the negotiations won’t happen until later in August.

    In the interim, proponents of the Central Wasatch Conservation and Recreation Area Act are looking to fast-track the bill by getting it approved by the full body of the Central Wasatch Commission and deposited in the hands of the Utah delegation.

    Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, has been sending staff members to commission discussions as the potential sponsor. Becker in the past has indicated support among multiple delegation members, including Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart. Conversations are ongoing with Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee.

    Becker said the legislation needs to move forward on a compressed time frame, even absent Alta’s participation.

    “The windows of opportunity to do things are sometimes pretty short and short-lived,” he said.

    The legislation would establish an 80,000-acre conservation and recreation area for the central Wasatch Mountains and add more than 8,000 acres of new wilderness. Three Salt Lake County ski resorts, Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird, would agree to higher elevation land swaps with the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for land near base operations for expansion.

    Disagreements, however, continue to erupt over the suitability of certain recreational uses, such as continued mountain biking at the White Pine area and wilderness considerations in close proximity to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

    “I would encourage the commission to slow down,” said Kevin Dwyer, with the Salt Lake Trails Society.

    Dwyer complained there had been too little study and too little review over legislation that has the potential to impact what he said surveys show is the No. 1 recreational priority for Salt Lake County residents.

    Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher argued against the mountain bike access in White Pine.

    “This is the only high-alpine trailhead not inside a ski area in Little Cottonwood Canyon where people can find solace and reflect,” he told the board. “Wilderness designation is the only way to protect that.”

    Fisher, too, said the unresolved issues and modifications are impossible to accept.

    “We are experiencing an unraveling, where modifications that have been made and the current status of the draft are unsupportable,” he wrote the board. “This legislation has always been a balancing act and we feel as it stands it is out of balance, with potential to be more so based on a handful of unresolved issues.”

    Fisher said the group wants to continue to work with the commission to get those issues resolved.

    Some who offered public comment at the meeting in Cottonwood Heights questioned if the legislative proposal has been properly vetted with members of the Utah Legislature, who would have an interest in another federal designation in the state.

    “Have you scheduled committee hearings for this summer interim? If so, when are the hearings? If no, why not?” questioned Greg Schiffman, a member of the Granite Community Council.

    Another critic, Norm Henderson, charged that the transportation component is missing from the bill, leaving Grizzly Gulch off the table and dismantling the support of other key players.

    “The consensus touted by Mountain Accord leadership back in 2016 is completely missing today,” he said.

    As part of the Mountain Accord agreement, Salt Lake City agreed to provide culinary water for a 100-bed hotel and to support retail and commercial development of eight shops for a transit hub for Alta Ski Lifts Co., which operates the ski resort. It also agreed to provide water for snowmaking operations.

    Laura Briefer, executive director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, said a condition for providing water included a transfer of privately held parcels within Grizzly Gulch to federal land ownership.

    The offer of water, she added, has not yet been withdrawn pending continued negotiations with Alta Ski Lifts.

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