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Walkara Way pushes forward as landowners rebuild relationship with lake authority

By Carlene Coombs - | Apr 20, 2024

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

Jacob Holdaway and his daughter, Mia, stand on his property along the Utah Lake shoreline Monday, April 8, 2024.

After being in limbo for the past couple of years, the Walkara Way project is slowly starting to get off its feet again.

Walkara Way, which is named after a Native American chief who led the Timpanogos people, is a project created by Jacob Holdaway, a Vineyard resident and city councilman whose family settled the city, to improve the Utah Lake shoreline, increase recreation access and empower private landowners.

The idea is to get landowners on board with allowing grazing on their land to manage vegetation while also allowing for a bike path for residents to access and enjoy the lake.

However, the project has been on pause since around the beginning of 2022 due to a controversial development proposal to build islands on Utah Lake, Holdaway said.

Now, since the developer involved, Lake Restoration Solutions, has dissolved and with new Utah Lake Authority leadership, Holdaway said he and other government agencies are looking to get the project rolling again.

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

Jacob Holdaway points to mowed-down phragmites on Utah Lake's shore Monday, April 8, 2024.

Holdaway said he has brought out more than 30 representatives from various government entities and community interests to give them the Walkara Way tour, where he shows what he’s been doing on his family’s property.

“Walkara Way is bringing all of the government entities together and bringing all of the private landowners together in a public meeting to start working towards balancing out the ecosystem,” he said.

Holdaway’s property is on the lake’s shore and currently has a fence dividing it in two and another fence separating it from the golf course it borders.

The north section of the property is nearly free from phragmites, the tall, pale yellow invasive grass that Utah Valley residents have grown accustomed to seeing along the lake.

On the other side of the fence to the south, the grass stands several feet tall, hiding the 30 head of cattle lounging in the late afternoon sun and lazily munching on the tall grass. On his 55 acres, Holdaway is experimenting with using grazing as a method of managing the phragmites on the property.

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

A field on the Utah Lake shore with tall phragmites grass is pictured Monday, April 8, 2024.

“This is our first pilot area and we just moved on to the next,” he said, standing in the open meadow, now absent of phragmites. “They (the cows) were here for 90 days,” he added.

Phragmites cause a handful of problems, according to the Utah Lake Authority. The invasive species sucks water away from native plants and poses a fire risk when the reeds dry in the late summer.

As phragmites grow, they crowd together, disrupting bird and fish habitats and making shorelines inaccessible for human recreation. That crowding also chokes out native plant species.

Mosquitoes are another issue on the lake, and the stagnant water caused by the phragmites as it blocks waterways is a perfect breeding ground for the bothersome insects.

The current grass management Holdaway said he has observed around Vineyard involves mowing the grass, which sometimes only lays the reeds down and still leaves the seeds.

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

A piece of land on the shore of Utah Lake that has been grazed by cows is seen Monday, April 8, 2024.

The cows on his property only feed off of what is in the grazing area, which includes phragmites, with no grain or alfalfa being brought in.

Holdway said he believes using grazing to manage the phragmites will “open up the land” and make it easier to plan a bike path on the shoreline, a key aspect of the Walkara Way project.

“It also allows you to come in and plant trees like shade trees or other amenities that citizens might want to come and engage in,” he said.

Grazing has a “place in managing the shoreline” when utilized properly, said Ben Stireman, deputy director of lands and minerals with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, though it isn’t applicable everywhere. He added that the division uses grazing on state lands as a method of managing vegetation and invasive species.

Ideally, grazing is done heavily upfront, with the amount of grazing reduced until it’s only needed for maintenance.

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

A field on the Utah Lake shore with tall phragmites grass is pictured Monday, April 8, 2024.

“And maybe eventually you end up actually taking the cows off completely if you get it to a point where you eradicated the species,” Stireman said.

While Holdaway is currently testing out grazing on his property, another critical component of the Walkara Way project is providing meaningful and accessible recreation for Utahns to enjoy.

Walkara Way would mainly include completing a bike path along the lake. Currently, pieces of a bike path line the shores of Utah Lake but lack connection in some sections.

In Vineyard, there’s a short stretch of a bike path that runs along the lake, with the south and north ends ending abruptly. If the project goes as hoped, that path could be connected further south to another path in Provo and hopefully could continue around the rest of the lake.

Moving the project forward

The project is still in the “planning phase,” Stireman said, but things are moving forward with a lot of work ahead regarding property ownership and getting landowners on board.

“We really want to make sure that as we’re developing this process, that folks have a chance to weigh in on where the trail goes and what the benefits are,” Stireman said.

As of now, Holdway said there are about six parcels of land between Vineyard and Provo that are on board with the project, amounting to more than 600 acres, including his family’s land.

In 2021, the state Legislature appropriated millions of dollars for Walkara Way, money that has been sitting as the project has been in limbo.

Stireman said when funds don’t get spent, there’s a risk of the Legislature appropriating money elsewhere.

While a majority of the Walkara Way money remains, this year, the Legislature pulled out $1.5 million to fund a Utah Lake study that was part of a bill passed by Sen. Curt Bramble. The study is set to be complete by November 2025, Utah News Dispatch reported.

Putting the state’s money to use is one of the reasons Luke Peterson, executive director of the Utah Lake Authority, said Walkara Way is a priority for the organization this year.

“The burden is on us to prove that we’re making progress and we’re getting everything taken care of so that we can utilize those funds,” Peterson said.

He added that the Utah Lake Authority’s role in the project is to help bring all the stakeholders to the table and facilitate conversation.

“We facilitate, we listen, we mediate,” he said.

Stireman also expressed that Walkara Way was a priority for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, especially with the Legislature’s contribution.

“Whenever we can increase public accessibility and recreation, you know, that connectivity to the lands we manage, that’s always a priority,” he said.

Peterson said that while Utah County has this “wonderful, natural wonder at its heart,” Utah Lake is often ignored.

“We can treat it (Utah Lake) as a dirty secret, or we can treasure it as the resource that it is,” Peterson said.

New leadership and transparency

Holdaway said he put the project on hold around the beginning of 2022 after seeing a rendering of the Lake Restoration Solutions project, which proposed creating islands in the lake for development, that showed a highway built through his family’s land.

He also said the island project developers began offering to buy land from landowners, many of whom also were being approached about the Walkara Way project.

“I can’t go around telling people in good faith, ‘Yeah, donate your lands,'” Holdaway said, thinking back to when they “pressed pause” on the project.

Distrust grew when Holdaway and other community members also discovered that the then-executive director of the Utah Lake Commission — now Utah Lake Authority — had sent letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of the island project. Vineyard Mayor Julie Fullmer also sent the federal agency a letter of support.

Eric Ellis, the former ULA director, stepped down from the lake authority at the end of October to take on the position of Vineyard city manager, with ULA selecting a new director, Peterson, in February.

With new leadership and the lake authority updating and passing new bylaws regarding transparency, Holdaway said they have begun to move forward again.

Peterson said as he has taken on his new role, he wants to find a new way forward, specifically after the island project controversy.

“That’s sort of the unfortunate legacy of LRS. Set aside the merits of it, you know, whether or not we should have done or not. The legacy of it at this point is how many people have divided,” Peterson said.

At the end of the day, Peterson said what he can do as executive director is to listen and acknowledge the harm that may have been caused in the past.

“We now begin the real day-to-day, twilight struggle of how do we improve Utah Lake, how do we make it a healthy ecosystem? How do we complete this wonderful trail system around it?” he said.

Holdaway said he is still apprehensive about working with and trusting the Utah Lake Authority and some landowners still have reservations about the project due to past “bad blood.”

“But that bitterness, it can consume if you don’t forgive, if you don’t take a step forward,” he said.


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