Should individual vehicles continue to be the main mode of canyon travel? Or should they be replaced by buses, trains, gondolas, bikes or a combination thereof?
Should direct links be forged between Salt Lake and Summit counties, either through a system of interconnecting ski lifts or by converting old mine tunnels into subterranean passages?
Or will something else out there work better?
"This is the best opportunity," said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, "to make long-term decisions and to implement a vision for the canyons that respects both the need to protect watershed and conserve backcountry areas while also recognizing some of the public and private uses of the canyons.
"We want to get all of the goals and objectives on the table and to find solutions we can implement that will get us to a place we'll be happy with in 20 years," he added.
'Breaking new ground' • Success won't come easy.
It's never easy to draft a full-blown EIS with a detailed analysis of land use, watershed impacts, recreational demands and economic opportunities.
But this one will be even harder, said Mike Allegra, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), the lead local agency pulling together the disparate groups interested in the canyons.
"The organizational structure is organic and growing," he said, acknowledging it could be hard to keep all of these parties, with their often conflicting ideas, working together. In addition, the EIS process apparently will be spearheaded by a troika of federal agencies: the Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration.
"This is a unique process we're having to create because of all these agencies involved," Allegra said. "They've never done an EIS together. We're breaking new ground."
It won't come quickly. Several years will be needed to do the EIS. Allegra predicted it could take eight months just to draft a mission statement acceptable to everyone from ski resorts to conservationists.
Nor will it be cheap. Estimates range from $5 million to $10 million, including funds from the private sector as well as public agencies.
But EIS planners won't have to start from scratch. Canyon roadways have been studied for years.
The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) did an in-depth risk assessment and management study for Little Cottonwood Canyon in 2005. A year later, funds from the National Scenic Byways Program were used to review corridor management in the Cottonwood canyons. Community aspirations for the area were highlighted in Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow report in 2010.
Then last fall, Salt Lake County released three studies that laid the groundwork for the upcoming EIS.
One examined alternative transportation in Mill Creek Canyon. The other two focused on the Cottonwood canyons. The first dealt with a range of transportation options in those two heavily traveled canyons. The second addressed parking issues in and around them.
"We were not reinventing the wheel but adding more spokes," said Andrea Pullos, Salt Lake County transportation engineer .
While there is no reason to try to implement many of the parking study's recommendations until bigger decisions are made about what future forms of transportation look like in the canyons, the report is indicative of the complexity of the task.
'Guiding principles' • Parking needs alone in the two canyons are projected to cost $16 million to $45 million, according to the study prepared by Avenue Consultants.
The study noted that 17 improvements were recommended by a steering committee including representatives of the county, UDOT, UTA, Forest Service, Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities and the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
"Sites with identified parking needs are already nearing [or have well exceeded] their current parking capacities and will need attention regardless of what growth models are used to project future demands," the study concluded.
Watershed protection should be the primary goal of whatever is done, the study said, listing a dozen other "guiding principles" steering committee members agreed upon, more or less. Not all were universally accepted, the report noted, but they were included because members were "willing to consider [them] as a potential solution to parking within the canyons."
These principles endorsed:
• More mass transit
• Redirecting recreation demand from high to lower-use areas
• Expanding park-and-ride lots outside of the canyons
• Providing more parking in high-demand areas without increasing the number of spaces overall in the canyons
• Eliminating informal parking on road shoulders
• Enhancing bike and pedestrian safety
• Installing more electronic signs to inform canyon users
• Considering parking fees or passes for people not headed to ski resorts
'Preserve what people want' • At a number of picnic areas and pullouts for activities such as rock climbing, study participants favored restricting parking on road shoulders, compensating for the loss of those spaces by expanding formal parking lots with additional paving and striping.
But that could be difficult at parking lots on Forest Service land, the study acknowledged, because expanded parking is not consistent with the forest-management plan of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
"Our forest plan allows us to change a parking lot if it is to facilitate transportation or is a watershed-protection measure," said Salt Lake District Ranger Cathy Kahlow. "But we just can't increase parking areas for recreational uses. … Parking outside of the canyons and transporting people to them may be the best way to preserve what people want for those canyons."
Out-of-canyon parking hubs are discussed in the study. The largest and most expensive ($5.24 million) involves the transformation of the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard, just north of Big Cottonwood Canyon, into a major transit hub. The study also addresses possible changes to the "Swamp Lot" farther south on Wasatch Boulevard and ways to keep canyon traffic from backing into Cottonwood Heights' neighborhoods.
The big variable in projected parking costs involves the S-Curve at Mill B in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
A modest option for dealing with its hazards parking along the road, pedestrians intermixing with motorists would cost about $1.6 million. But another option, which entails realigning the road to remove the S-Curve and building a parking structure, could cost almost $31 million.
Whatever solutions are chosen, county environmental coordinator Kimberly Barnett said the county studies got people thinking about common issues and goals.
"Now is the time to move this forward to NEPA," she said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act. "The canyons are loved by all, so we have to protect them."
This is the first of three stories looking at a trio of studies, completed last fall under the auspices of Salt Lake County, that laid a foundation for an environmental impact statement (EIS) expected to provide a comprehensive examination of transportation issues in the central Wasatch Mountains. The groundwork studies dealt with transportation to and within Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons, parking in and around those canyons and transportation issues in Mill Creek Canyon. This first story will address parking issues.