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Matheson tries again to expand Wasatch wilderness

Published March 28, 2012 7:53 am

Alta's mayor worries the bill might restrict avalanche controls.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • About 26,000 additional acres of Wasatch Front canyons would get federal protection under legislation introduced Tuesday by Rep. Jim Matheson, who says local officials, outdoor enthusiasts and business and environmental groups back his effort.

The bill is Matheson's second stab at locking down some of the area's crucial watershed from development by creating a Grandeur Peak wilderness area and expanding such protections near Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak.

Additionally, about 10,000 acres would be named as "special management areas" to help safeguard the area but would still allow helicopter skiing.

"Ever since the Mormon pioneers camped by the mouth of City Creek in 1847, our prosperity and our quality of life have been linked to the abundant, clean water flowing from these canyons," Matheson said Tuesday. "The honest effort that produced this legislation builds on that legacy so that this precious resource is there for our children and grandchildren."

The bill — supported by the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County and by Save Our Canyons and Snowbird — could still run into concerns from the town of Alta, which fears the measure would hamstring efforts to prevent avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Alta Mayor Tom Pollard said Tuesday that he hadn't seen the legislation — and that he wasn't invited to negotiations on the bill — but warned that he would object to any language creating an easement that precludes the ability to use avalanche-control tools.

Matheson's office says the bill still would allow avalanche control on that parcel, even with the easement. But Pollard says that if officials were somehow unable to use military artillery in the future to knock down potential hazardous snowpacks, then a ski lift in that area might be the only suitable alternative.

"I have issues with legislation that takes one of the alternatives off the table," Pollard said. "I'm all for wilderness protection and watershed protection, but I have to look at public safety first."

Matheson counters that his new bill addresses Alta's worries.

"We've really tried to accommodate concerns for avalanche control," Matheson said.

The six-term Democratic congressman's legislation comes as Salt Lake County launches a "blue-ribbon commission" to revise longstanding guidelines governing uses in the foothills and canyons. With private land abutting and filling in some areas, the process is likely to find landowners, conservationists and businesses at odds.

But many of those same sides agree on Matheson's second attempt to declare parts of the area off-limits.

The bill, said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, "protects some of the most treasured landscapes in the central Wasatch, [and] it is a symbol that, despite our differences, communities, local governments, the federal government and industry can come together to do incredible things for the places we love and future generations."

Snowbird General Manager Bob Bonar said his resort backs the legislation because it would preserve wilderness areas while at the same time allowing additional lands for outdoor recreation.

tburr@sltrib.com