War of the Wasatch 

As development in the Wasatch grows, Save Our Canyons works for wilderness and water protection

The One Wasatch concept, with blue dots representing a potential connection between resorts.
  • The One Wasatch concept, with blue dots representing a potential connection between resorts.

A persistent protector of the Wasatch Mountains is the group Save Our Canyons. Founded in 1972, Save Our Canyons helped establish the Lone Peak, Mount Olympus and Twin Peaks wilderness areas.

Combined, these three wild places protect nearly 57,000 acres of the Wasatch from the teeth of bulldozers.
Whether it’s a housing development or a hiker straying from the trail, threats to the Wasatch watershed—which supplies drinking water to 340,000 people—abound.

Periodic efforts to develop in the Wasatch shine a light on the efforts to balance development and conservation. And, at present, the spotlight is bright. In March, Ski Utah unveiled an ambitious plan to link all seven of the central Wasatch ski resorts via ski lifts.

Hailed as a boon for the resorts and tourism interests, supporters of the plan, called One Wasatch, say the linkage will give Utah’s slopes a more European feel and will help the Beehive State chip away at the large slices of the ski tourism pie held by Colorado and California.

But the plan, which Ski Utah officials say can be developed on private land with private money without harming the watershed, was blasted by Save Our Canyons, which calls the effort “One horrible plan for the Wasatch Mountains.”

Ski resorts in the Wasatch have a long history of expansion, which Fisher calls the “businessification of our watershed.” Areas cleared to make way for ski lifts inevitably fill in with condominiums and luxury homes, he says, noting that real estate, not the sale of lift tickets, is what fuels the modern ski industry.

“It always starts with a ski lift,” says Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “But it always gets filled in with homes, restaurants, coasters and mechanical bulls.” (Snowbird has a mechanical bull.)

Fisher wonders when enough development in the canyons—and by default, in the protected watershed—is enough. He points out that a car spilling oil or gasoline on the road up Little or Big Cottonwood Canyon is enough to prompt water-quality officials to stop taking in water at the treatment plants at the base of the canyon.

With this level of sensitivity and the magnitude of what’s at stake—clean water—Fisher says it’s a gift to have the Wasatch open at all.

This fact, he says, should make those who use the Wasatch that much more thoughtful of what they do there.

“There are watersheds in this country that are closed to human access because the water resources that come to them are more valuable in some people’s eyes than the recreation opportunities that might exist on those watersheds,” Fisher says.

Efforts to further protect the watershed are afoot. In July 2013, Congressman Jim Matheson introduced legislation that aims to establish the Wasatch Wilderness & Watershed Protection Act, which would fill in some of the gaps between already established wilderness areas by setting aside an additional 25,000 acres for protection. To date, this effort has failed to gain traction in Washington. And Matheson, who has said he won’t run for an eighth term, is in his last year as a representative.

On the local level, Save Our Canyons, along with businesses, municipalities, counties and other stakeholders, has embarked on a multi-year effort called the Mountain Accord, which aims to come to a collective consensus on how best to manage the heavily trafficked Wasatch long into the future.

The snow Utahns love to ski on eventually comes out of their taps. This close relationship with a water source is rare, Fisher says, and needs to be seen for what it is, not simply commodified.

“That’s pretty amazing to rely on that and just to be able to witness it,” he says. “We enjoy a connection to our environment that is pretty unique in that regard.”

Twitter: @ColbyFrazierLP

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