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Now the Wasatch Mountains landmark - where Big Cottonwood Creek rushes through a hole in the granite mountainside - belongs to the public.

Stealing away on a hot summer afternoon for a romantic cool-down in the mist of the shady falls no longer requires trespassing.

One of Big Cottonwood Canyon's most recognized features, Donut Falls was put off limits to the public in November 2004 by property owners who feared legal liability.

But Tuesday, Salt Lake City purchased 144 acres in lower Cardiff Fork that include the falls, from Honolulu-based Sierra Partners.

"That's amazing. I'm so excited. I'm just ecstatic," said Lisa Smith, of the environmental group Save Our Canyons, upon hearing the news Thursday.

For many Utahns, Donut Falls is synonymous with the Wasatch Mountains. From the trail head near Big Cottonwood Canyon's "S" curve, the gentle climb to the falls has made it a favorite for family outings.

"Almost everybody is familiar with Donut Falls. It's the first hike I did as a kid," Smith said. "It's a fun thing to do that's not strenuous, but is visually rewarding."

Salt Lake City purchased the ground for $1.284 million. The property was listed in 2000 for $4.2 million.

"This is part of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities watershed-purchase program," said director LeRoy Hooton. "The city has historically acquired watershed properties since 1885."

But it was the department's 1986 master plan that again emphasized watershed-land purchases. That led to a 1991 Salt Lake City ordinance that defined a surcharge on water bills and earmarked those funds for acquisitions.

"This is a means of protecting our valuable watershed resource area," Hooton said.

And along with public ownership comes public access, said Jeff Niermeyer, the department's deputy director.

"At the end of the day, the people who had acquired it really wanted to get it back in public hands," Niermeyer explained. "That's fortunate, because they had offers that were higher."

Salt Lake City hopes to forge an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to manage the area along with federal forest lands in the canyon.

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