Saturday, March 7, 2015

Mountain Accord, or Mountain Discord?

Over the last year I've been very involved with the Mountain Accord process as part of my role as the "Assistant to the Vice President" of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance. I haven't written about it much here because....well, because it seems like I have spent so much time on Mountain Accord that it's almost felt like a (unpaid) job, and I write this for "fun".  But now it's getting important, and is worth a call to action to anyone who might read this.

If you have recreated in the Wasatch, currently recreate in the Wasatch, will recreate in the Wasatch, or drink the water out of the taps here, now is the time to opine on what is the beginning of a phase change for the Wasatch.  I have been here for 15 years, and this is The Biggest Thing To Happen in the planning and management of our beloved little range.  Having so many different entities with different agendas/goals that are - in many cases  -contradictory makes for a very complex process that is sometimes difficult to wade through, but it's very much worth a bit of time for education, because the Wasatch is gonna change, and will do so with or without your input!  So you might as well add your thoughts to the process at the appropriate time, and now is very much the appropriate time.

We have created the opportunities to meet with many of the leaders of the Mountain Accord process and I'm becoming increasingly convinced of two things: 1) there are no conspiracies or back-door deals happening, just people pushing their respective agendas (some harder than other), and these can be changed by public opinion (outrage), and 2) it is vitally important that this "succeeds", somehow or another, regardless of the muddiness of it.  As Mayor Ralph Becker put it to me (and undoubtedly everyone else): "we are at a unique point in time" with the right players in the right positions and the willingness of all to make some deals.

To be sure, Mountain Accord's biggest shortcoming has been it's woefully-bad lack of communication to both members and - particularly - to the public, but they recognize that and are working hard at improving communication.

Here is a link to Mountain Accord's "blueprint" (which should really be called a proposal), and here is a Question and Answer doc that tries to distill the Mountain Accord process into a fairly easily-digestible bit  on the WBA site (if you aren't a member yet, join!  Lowest impact activist org going!)  The survey on the MA site is really awkward and misleading and I'm convinced that it will yield very little actionable info into the process, but it does have plenty of space for comments.  I would suggest writing your own email to  If you live out of town, or have friends who live out of town and visit to b/c ski, please comment as well; out-of-towners represent those tourist dollars that our leaders value above....most things!

Below is the letter that I will send to them myself; feel free to use/poach as you wish.
Mountain Accord Blueprint Comments


I have been very involved in the Mountain Accord process from the inception as a member of the Recreation System Group, and these are my formal comments regarding the “blueprint” put forth by the Executive Board.  

·      I recognize that the traffic situation in Little Cottonwood Canyon is unsustainable on some winter days, and while I understand the impetus to promote a train version of a fixed guideway, I feel that the bus system is far from optimized and with proper implementation, could service both the ski resorts and dispersed users on a year-round basis far more effectively than a train. 
·      Providing copious parking near the mouths of the canyon would be a critical component of this.
·      Without trying an optimized bus system using the existing infrastructure I feel it is impossible to justify major infrastructure changes (adding lanes or a installing a train)
·      Charging a per-vehicle fee - either via a daily fee or an annual pass – would help subsidize the optimized bus/parking system and provide an incentive to ride the transit system
·      Incentivize ridership by making the bus fee free or only a nominal price.   
·      The bus system would need to have both a Snowbird-servicing bus and multiple Alta express buses.  
·      Current and future UDOT plans to add passing lanes on hwy 210 for private vehicles should be focused on improving bus transit systems. 
·      Snowsheds and/or bridges over slide paths can/should be added for increased avalanche mitigation for the highway.
·      I fully support optimizing year-round Bus Rapid Transit for Big Cottonwood Canyon.  Again, with copious parking at the mouth of the canyon. 
·      A tunnel linking LCC and BCC is not needed.  Improved public transit would alleviate the traffic issues associated with LCC, and the “safety” issues that have been ascribed to a tunnel have been overblown; there have not been any documented injuries/fatalities associated with overuse of LCC that would not be overcome with improved transit.
·      Tunnel connections would create more defacto resort sidecountry terrain, effectively increasing the resorts’ footprints. 
·      The tunnel would basically be a taxpayer-funded connection that would exist to benefit four businesses (ski resorts) with no/very little validation that such a connection would actually be economically beneficial to those busineses  There are no significant “problems” that an LCC/BCC tunnel would solve, despite a considerable cost to taxpayers.
·      The same argument is applied to a fixed guideway system connecting BCC to Park City.  It would not necessarily save time for PC-BCC travelers, is not supported by Park City officials, and would again be a taxpayer-subsidized benefit to a handful of businesses (ski resorts) who have not proven that such a connection would even be beneficial today, much less in the future considering global warming and the flat/declining trends of the resort skiing industry (according to their own study).
·      The question on the survey asking if the transit “solutions” are “environmentally-sustainable” is fundamentally flawed:  transit systems are not intended to be “environmentally sustainable”; they are intended to transport people from point to point. Since NO ONE – including trans engineers who have looked into this project – knows if they’ll actually be environmentally-sustainable (eg degrading the watershed) that point is misguided at best and badly misleading and irrelevant at worst.  The question should be “Is this a solution that I as a user of the Central Wasatch would actually use and be willing to pay for?”
·      At the moment parking is the limiting factor for pressurized use in the Cottonwood Canyons; enabling as many people as possible to use the canyon will result in more user pressure.  Optimizing Bus Rapid Transit will be an intermediate step to moving possibly-somewhat more people up the canyon to put only moderate additional use pressure on the canyons. 
·      I am in full support of a year-round bus shuttle system for Mill Creek Canyon.
·      I am in full support of a train/light rail system linking the Salt Lake Valley with Park City.  This is a system that I feel would be used far more extensively by commuters and lower-income resort workers around the clock on a more-regular schedule than a LCC canyon train that would be associated almost exclusively for time-intensive recreation. 
·      The rationale provided for abandoning the Parley’s rail transit  - that was favored in the Trans system group - is that it would not be competitive with the freeway; however, this rationale was not applied to the successful SLC airport Trax line. 

·      I am in full support of creating a trails network in the upper reaches of the two canyons
·      The trails should be a mix of hiking exclusive, mountain biking exclusive, and and shared (and/or with management techniques conducive to habits; ie Snowbird’s new trail being uphill til the tram runs and then it becomes downhill).
·      Any new road/transit construction must have improved road cycling facilities (wider shoulders, exclusive bike lanes, disconnected paved bike paths)
·      LCC/BCC parking areas need to be enlarged and enhanced for the major dispersed user trailheads, with optional stops for the Bus Rapid Transit at White Pine, Argenta, Butler Fork, Mineral Fork, etc.
·      I support the permanent protection of the Emma Ridges to Superior ridgeline from development. 
·      I do NOT support a chairlift in Grizzly Gulch.  I recognize that it is private property, but I also appreciate that much of Alta’s operations are on public land and that they stand to benefit greatly from enhanced base development on a lot of lucrative land, additional water use, increased snowmaking, and improved LCC transit.  Grizzly Gulch and the surrounding area should be put into some sort of permanent protection. 
·      I could be supportive of chairlifts and development into the American Fork Canyon depending on alignment and scope.   
·      I could be supportive of a re-aligned chairlift in Honeycomb Canyon, depending on the alignment, provided there are no effects on Silver Fork backcountry
·      I am supportive of Brighton’s formal adoption of Hidden Canyon, provided any chairlift reaches back towards the Great Western chairlift.
·      I am supportive of increased connectivity between Brighton and Solitude in the SolBright area.
·      I am supportive of enhanced facilities at identified high-use nodes to both concentrate use in appropriate close-in areas and disperse use in more-remote areas
I am in support of modifying wilderness boundaries to accomodate new and existing sections of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. 

·      I fail to understand how the Mountain Accord can consider all forms of recreation in the Central Wasatch except for one of the most significant and controversial forms:  Wasatch Powderbirds.  To me this “oversight”  of neglecting helicopter skiing in our tiny range –that was based on a Forest Service administrative timeline that was arbitrarily changed from 5 year renewals to 10 years  - is an egregious omission. 

·      I support enabling the ski resorts to utilize more water for snowmaking
·      I support adding potential land and altering zoning for additional development at the various resorts’ bases. 
·      I support enabling the ski resorts to expand their summertime activities within their existing footprints.
·      I support enhanced modern avalanche mitigation techniques (ie Gas-X) above Alta. I do NOT support a chairlift on Flagstaff peak
·      I do not support extraordinarily-expensive, taxpayer-funded “solutions” to “problems” that enable profit maximization for ski resorts whose lift tickets are pricing their customers out of an already-flat-to-declining market. 

·      I am not an environmental specialist, so I cannot comment on the survey question:  “does the Blueprint achieve environmental stewardship of the natural resources?” 
·      I know that the EPA has determined that ski resort development has a more profound effect on watershed integrity than ANY other development.  But I am cautiously optimistic that SLC Water and various other governing bodies will ensure water quality despite the threats associated with increased use, transit, and development.
·      I am in favor of a re-forestation effort on (particularly) the Emma ridgeline area
·      I am becoming increasingly convinced that simple people-pressure on the canyons is having a degrading effect on the watershed, and dramatically increasing opportunities to transport people up the canyons will have a commensurate effect on the watershed quality. 
·      I am concerned that the ski resorts are getting many of their desired “gets”, and their “gives” are more along the lines of “we are not taking as much as we could take”, at the expense of potential environmental and backcountry terrain preservation. 

Overall I have found the “blueprint” (it should have been called a “ proposal”) to NOT be reflective of the thousands of hours of work that people put into the system group meetings and submeetings over the summer; it confirms to me that the Exec board was made up of a lot of Important People who were not very engaged in the process and therefore created a plan that represented their impressions/interests rather than what was determined by the System Groups. 

Therefore I do not support the “blueprint” in its current form, but I am a strong believer in the Mountain Accord ideals and timing, and am very hopeful that a more equitable balance of gives and takes can be achieved to accommodate many constituents’/stakeholders’ desires, IF they are all willing to concede on some of their desires. 
(end of comments)

We at the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance have become emboldened over the last few week or so that not only can the blueprint be changed dramatically, it very likely will be changed, but again we can't emphasize enough that the impetus to do so will be driven in large part by the winds of change that the public comments may blow.  We hope it's a hurricane!  So please take the bit of time to educate yourself a little, send in your comments, and encourage anyone you know who has, does, will, can, or might recreate in the Wasatch to do so as well.  


  1. Tom,

    I very much agree with your positions and the reasoning behind them. As you mention, the questionnaire provided by MA is clumsy and those who care really should consider also sending a letter.

    Thank you for your efforts with WBA.. Well done!

  2. Thanks T-Dawg! I used your letter as a template and just squeezed it in under the deadline!