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Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced federal legislation Monday aimed at protecting critical watersheds and landscapes along the Salt Lake Valley's east bench while balancing the needs for growing access to Wasatch Mountain resorts.
The legislation touted as a bipartisan, ground-up collaboration from the Mountain Accord planning process would designate about 80,000 acres of Forest Service land to protect swaths of scenic ridgelines and allow ski resorts to own more land in their base areas. Backers say the bill would safeguard drinking water for the burgeoning Wasatch Front and preserve recreational opportunities and access, while helping to accommodate population growth.
"Utah once again leads the way in demonstrating the power of a collaborative approach to local problems," Chaffetz, R-Utah, said in a statement, noting that various parties who may not often agree sat down to work out a solution. "This bill will guide our growth and preservation efforts for decades to come."
Chaffetz's office said the proposal, being introduced as Congress heads into summer break, came courtesy of consensus of local officials, state lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert's office as well as recreational interests, private businesses, environmental organizations and residents.
"There has been a lot of interest between recreational interests, environmental interests, ski resort interests, watershed," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, "and I think we've struck a good balance between everything."
He said the compromises were necessary to create the bill but noted that's how collaboration works.
"Going into this, we would have hoped it would have been more of a silver bullet for a lot of the initiatives we've been dealing with over the years," Fisher said. "In the end, I think this is really, really a huge step for conservation of the Wasatch Mountains."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat, said the measure enjoys "really broad-based support" and called it a "major milestone" in the four-year process of looking at approaches to preserving and improving the central Wasatch Mountains.
"We know in this process that nobody can get 100 percent of what they want, but I believe what we've proposed, in the end, is a balance," McAdams said. "It's good for the environment, good for our watershed, good for hikers and mountain bikers and good for the ski industry and will help us improve transportation access."
McAdams framed the bill's introduction as just a start of the overall Mountain Accord planning but said it was a good one.
"There are still issues to be addressed in transportation, trail and recreation access in the canyons," he said, "but this federal legislation is a major piece of what needs to happen."
The measure, Chaffetz's office says, will:
• Continue all existing recreational uses and permits in the area.
• Adjust existing Wilderness Area boundaries of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to accommodate transportation upgrades.
• Add about 8,000 acres of new wilderness.
• Authorize land exchanges between the Forest Service and ski resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
• Bar new roads for vehicles on Forest Service land.
Monday's bill unveiling is one of two planned this week about Utah public lands. Chaffetz and fellow Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop say they will reveal by Friday their Public Lands Initiative to preserve and manage the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah.