In the past year and a half, cities, counties, nonprofits and various government organizations have been busy hammering out a future for the central Wasatch Range through a well-publicized process called Mountain Accord.
This process has birthed a proposed blueprint that outlines several scenarios for these jagged peaks, including a train through Little Cottonwood Canyon, tunnels that connect the Cottonwood canyons to the Park City area and protections of some land in exchange for more development at the bases of ski resorts.
But as Utahns debate the blueprint, the costs of the Mountain Accord process itself have climbed, with expenditures estimated to reach $27 million by 2017.
To help float the Mountain Accord's financial needs, the Legislature in its recent session handed Mountain Accord $3 million—$2 million shy of what Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, asked for. Niederhauser also sits on Mountain Accord's executive board.
Mountain Accord also receives cash from participating cities and counties as well as donations from citizens and businesses, such as ski resorts based in the Cottonwood canyons.
But it's not clear how this money is being spent. The only budget information on Mountain Accord's website appears as a link to the January 2015 executive board meeting, in which it is estimated that, by 2017, as much as $27 million will have been spent on Mountain Accord.
While this "Phase II" budget shows that much of the money is being spent on consultants and legal review, the budget does not identify which consultants have received the $4 million that has already been spent.
In September 2013, the Mountain Accord executive committee hired Laynee Jones and her firm, LJ Consulting LLC, to coordinate the Mountain Accord process. At the same meeting, it retained Parametrix, an environmental-consulting firm based in Washington state.
Jones provided a more detailed account of Mountain Accord spending to City Weekly showing that she and her firm have received $578,000 over the past two years, while Parametrix has paid $3.2 million. These expenses, she says, were approved by the Mountain Accord executive board.
Jones says a more detailed expense report will be added to the website. "We will explore posting this type of information more frequently on the website in the future," she said.
For her part, Jones says her duties have involved getting 200 different stakeholders to sit down and agree on a set of baselines for the central Wasatch, a process that required 30 meetings.
Parametrix, Jones says, has provided all of the production work, including developing the Mountain Accord website, compiling reports and gathering information.
Jones says the large undertaking of Mountain Accord is well worth the effort because it could, at long last, resolve some of the piecemeal development, planning and inevitable conflict that the stunning central Wasatch tends to breed.
"It's the right thing to do so that we can actually settle a plan for this asset that we have that's a source for our drinking water and our recreation," Jones says. "We need better information about what's out there. So you're gathering information on a huge area. We've spent a lot of time and effort getting the stakeholders to agree on a baseline list of information, which is kind of unprecedented, really."
Because Mountain Accord did not receive the $5 million that Niederhauser requested from the Legislature, Jones says the Phase II budget will have to be revised. This budget shows that Mountain Accord will cost taxpayers $23.1 million over the next three years. These figures have only recently begun to draw scrutiny from those who are attempting to follow along and participate in the Mountain Accord process. The most visible of these critics is Pat Shea, a local attorney and University of Utah professor who is a former director of the Bureau of Land Management. Shea says the Mountain Accord process, and the future of the project, is being polluted by money.
"What you're seeing is what the consultants believe will be the best way to sustain their consultancy, as opposed to what's the best process and the most sustainable result for the Wasatch," Shea says. "When you allow professional consultants to say, 'This is how the process should be run,' they will run it that way, and they will be sensitive to the political and economic needs of the people who will then be renewing their contracts."
Indeed, it is possible to imagine that, just as in a political campaign, financial support from various corners could unduly influence the direction of Mountain Accord.
Jones says she has received comments from residents concerned about the level of money flowing to Mountain Accord from the private sector. In 2014, the Phase II budget shows that Mountain Accord received $60,000 in private funds. Jones' accounting provided to City Weekly shows that Snowbird and Alta resorts each gave $15,000, and the Snowpine Lodge at Alta gave $5,000. Save Our Canyons, a nonprofit that has publicly contemplated pulling out of the Mountain Accord process due to the emphasis paid to development projects, contributed a comprehensive canyons use-study valued at $60,000.
Chris Robinson, a Summit County council member who is on the Mountain Accord executive board, says that, on one hand, he's not surprised that this type of planning could be expensive. But, on the other, he's unsure about where the money will come from.
"I haven't had a chance, nor has it been presented in detail, where this money is coming from and where it is being spent," Robinson says.
Robinson notes that Summit County has contributed $25,000 the past two years, and will give $50,000 over the next couple of years. Salt Lake City is giving $200,000, as is the Utah Transit Authority, the Utah Department of Transportation and Salt Lake County.
Robinson's concern about Mountain Accord's finances doesn't negate the fact that lots of money might be needed. For a project like building a rail line and blasting tunnels through the mountains, the price tag would likely soar into the billions. "I don't think you can plan for a billion-dollar project on a nickel," he says.
In February, four decision makers, Summit County Council members Kim Carson and Roger Armstrong, and Park City Council members Dick Peek and Liza Simpson, accompanied Jones on a trip to Switzerland, where they viewed firsthand the types of canyon transportation systems that could appear in the Wasatch. Jones paid for her trip, but Mountain Accord picked up the $15,865 tab for the politicians' trip.
Shea says an audit should be launched to track Mountain Accord's funding and expenses, but he doubts it will happen.
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, says that he understands there could be sticker shock associated with the costs of Mountain Accord. But if a plan is reached that warring parties can agree upon, he says it could save vast sums of time and money in the future.
"I think that the quality of work and the level of conversation that we're having and the visioning exercise that we're collectively going through—I think the thinking is that we're going to save money in the long run, that we're paying consultants up front as opposed to paying lawyers on the back end," Fisher says.