By Sarah Bennett
Envision Utah, the public-private undertaking that is currently working to craft a long range plan for the canyons has been holding a series of meeting and surveys over more than a year to engage the public on the best way to manage growth, transportation, and recreational impacts to the canyons of the Wasatch. In meetings and survey results one thing has become clear; protection of the watershed is critical and trails in the higher reaches of the Wasatch are at capacity. The trails that were carved out of the recent Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection proposal are, for the most part the same trails that existed in 1984 when the first wilderness areas were established. Few new trails have or will be created in the higher reaches of the Wasatch in the future, even as the population of the valley continues to swell.
The time to consider new trails development and invest in a comprehensive trails master plan for the Wasatch Mountains and beyond is urgent, before opportunities are lost due to development or further wilderness protections that restrict mountain bike use are put in place. The boundary for the northern unit of Matheson’s wilderness proposal, dubbed the Wayne Owens/Grandeur Peak/Mt. Aire Wilderness Area, extends well into Parley’s Canyon, potentially eliminating this area from future trail development considerations.
If we are going to maintain our outdoors lifestyle and preserve the quality of the recreational trail experience along the Wasatch Front we need to start seriously looking at trail development in areas outside those intensively managed as watershed. We also need to think sustainably and consider creating trail systems that connect to bike paths, established recreation areas, and that can be accessed close to where we live and work. Both Emigration Canyon and Parleys Canyon—already a major transportation corridor that hosts a recreation area—present excellent possibilities for trails development. A comprehensive trails master plan has already been developed for Emigration Canyon and is waiting funding to become a reality but currently there is little available funds or willingness among land management agencies to embark on that project. Grass roots organizers who pushed for the creation of the trails master plan in Emigration are regrouping and considering ways to fund and help further trail building efforts there.
You’d be hard pressed to find too many trail users, mountain bikers included, who don’t believe in the benefits that wilderness brings to those who love the outdoors. People need clean water and untrammeled wild places and if wilderness designation can help us get that, then so be it. But wilderness designation, by its very definition, disallows any type of mechanical travel, and that means mountain bikes. The much celebrated announcement of the new 23-mile section of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail rings hollow for mountain bikers who will be prohibited from enjoying almost 70% of it because it crosses in and out of several wilderness areas just above the east bench, even though these “wilderness” areas are only a stone’s throw from crowded subdivisions and a busy freeway.
The latest wilderness bill should be a heads up for off-road cyclists to pay closer attention, get more involved, and speak out for access to trails both now and in the future. Currently, local land managers (the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and Salt Lake City Watershed) are the best places to register your comments. As Steve Scheid, Recreation Planner from the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service observed, “There are all kinds of competing uses on our forest lands now. If you are not at the table, you lose out.”