AMERICAN FORK CANYON – A proposed land swap for 416 acres of National Forest Service land in American Fork Canyon for privately-owned 1,400 acres in Salt Lake County’s Little Cottonwood Canyon has raised an alarm among several Utah County residents.
Specifically, Snowbird has Little Cottonwood Canyon property, 1,400 acres, it wants to give to the National Forest Service for 416 acres in Mineral Basin located at a terminus leg of American Fork Canyon.
Whether or not Snowbird can have access to its private property at Mineral Basin depends a lot on what the state legislature decides and also what stance the Utah County commissioners take. Historically, the commissioners have denied any plans for a paved road into Mineral Basin.
“I think a lot of people were surprised at how much property Snowbird had,” Bonar said.
Snowbird owns more than 1,500 acres in American Fork Canyon. Sundance has 5,000 acres.
The National Forest Service exchange would allow an expansion of Snowbird Resort’s already existing Mineral Basin trail system causing concern that large wilderness bowl may be lost to public access; or worse, Utah County commissioners could give permission for the resort to build an access road into the basin for the resort’s further development.
Protect and Preserve
A few weeks ago, Utah County resident, outdoorsman and photographer Willie Holdman discovered an organization called Mountain Accord had crossed over into Utah County with its Central Wasatch blueprint plans.
Accord members were voting on those proposed plans and additionally including the land swap on the agenda in mid-July.
“They know if they can get that 416 acres, it opens the whole door to that mountain, Mary Ellen Gulch [south of Mineral Basin],” Holdman said. “They are crossing the boundaries of their whole jurisdiction.”
He talked to his friend, Mark Allen and with Dr. Jeff Johnson, co-founded Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon. Next, they invited Snowbird CEO and President Bob Bonar to share his vision and future plans for American Fork Canyon's Mineral Basin.
The grassroots group met Tuesday night in the clubhouse at Fox Hollow Golf Course to hear Bonar's presentation.
“Let's slow the flow, the mayors don’t know what's going on,” said Brad Frost, American Fork city councilman. Frost moderated the discussion Tuesday.
“Let us get caught up,” he said. “We have not been a part of this process.”
Of the 40 or so people, Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, American Fork and Pleasant Grove council members, and representatives for back country hikers, mountain climbers, cyclists, equestrians, sportsmen and other organizations were represented.
The land swap move would double the footprint of Snowbird Resort in Mineral Basin, according to Allen. Snowbird's plans have not been done in a dark closet with closed doors. A stakeholder in a group called Mountain Accord, the trade for more Mineral Basin land will be voted on by the Mountain Accord executive board members on July 13.
“That board, the Mountain Accord Executive Board, they make recommendations,” Bonar said. “It’s far from a final result. It still has to go through all sorts of public hearings, a congressional hearing, go through a NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] process. So I just wanted to clarify that’s why it’s not an iron decision, it’s just a recommendation.”
A few requested Bonar ask the Accord to postpone the vote, and he said "no."
“This has been discussed for years and years,” Bonar said. “I won’t ask them to delay the vote.”
Founded in January 2014, Mountain Accord has several stakeholders who have met regularly to establish, protect and preserve Wasatch Mountain Range resources in Salt Lake, Summit and Wasatch counties. The organization meets to set policies for area's future development.
Members of the executive board reads like a list of “Who’s Who in Salt Lake County” and are Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, Cottonwood Heights; Mayor Tom Dolan, Sandy City; David Whittekiend, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor; Nathan Lee, UDOT Region 2; Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake County; Lane Beattie, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce president; Mayor Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City.
Additionally, the board includes Utah Governor Gary Herbert; Alan Matheson, Utah State Environmental advisor; Mayor Tom Pollard, Town of Alta and executive director; Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons executive director; Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah director; Peter Metcalf, Outdoor Industry Association; Linda Gehrke, Federal Transit Administration regional administrator; Mike Allegra, Utah Transit Authority general manager, Andrew Gruber, Wasatch Front Regional Council director.
There are several other members, legislators, council members from various other cities, and a few representatives from Summit and Wasatch counties.
Notice, not one is representing Utah County, even though the July vote will have a direct impact on Utah County and its American Fork Canyon. More on Mountain Accord can be found at mountainaccord.com.
There are several points of contention involved in a process that has included no representation from Utah County. The onus doesn’t necessarily fall on Bonar, but he felt the angst and frustration from the crowd.
“I would like to work out a plan where everyone is happy,” Bonar said. “I don't like going to meetings where people are angry.”
Much of the concern stems from no notification from Mountain Accord about crossing over the Utah County line, especially after Utah County begin its own Mountainland Association of Governments’ study called the American Fork Canyon Vision project or AFC Vision.
“It is critical that you know that this [was] not an AFC Vision sponsored meeting,” said Buck Swaney, AF Vision facilitator, of the Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon Tuesday meeting.
“There has been confusion regarding what events and comments are official versus unofficial,” Swaney said. “All official projects content and project meetings are described and managed on the AFCVision.com website.”
Part of the AFC Vision project is to put together a policy plan for private land in the canyon. There is reason for the interest in American Fork Canyon, often thought of as a community canyon.
There are between 1.2 million to 1.5 million people annually that visit the canyon, according to Swaney.
“For comparison, that is about half of the vision of Zions Park,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s absolutely an enormous amount of use.”
The AFC Vision deadline for the study process was August 2016. That deadline has changed and the new deadline is January or February 2016.
Snowbird guest access
Canyon access was another issue: would Snowbird close access to its resort or would it gain access through American Fork Canyon?
Frost expressed an interest in keeping development out of the canyon. Others, including Holdman, Allen and Johnson, spoke to the group and shared research and tried to define what the proposed Mineral Basin project meant to the Utah County outdoors community.
“They currently own Mary Ellen Gulch and most of Miller Hill, the south facing part down to the road,” Holdman said. “What they are trying to do now is do a land swap with the Forest Service to acquire 416 acres that would connect the Mary Ellen and Miller Hill land. They already own Mineral Basin. If this happens they will control a large part of the canyon and although their representative (Bob) sort of denies it, I believe they have plans to put in a gondola from Tibble Fork Reservoir to the top somewhere and condos at the base of Miller Hill.”
Other issues included protecting the watershed in American Fork Canyon, minimizing human impact on the wilderness, keeping the canyon access available to lower as well as upper classes as an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.
“This is a very sensitive subject,” said Frost after the meeting by email.
“I appreciate everyone who attended,” he said. “In attendance where city, county, and state elected officials along with a developer and parties with a special interest in American Fork Canyon. The take away for me was until we can take the proper planning steps, there should be no land swaps in American Fork Canyon. We know what Snowbird wants, but is this what the public wants?”