Mountain Mogul

Meet Local Land Crusader Cheryl Fox

For more than three decades, Summit Land Conservancy's director has championed open space and agricultural heritage, ensuring that the “park” remains in Park City.

By Jane Gendron June 19, 2019 Published in the Summer/Fall 2019 issue of Park City Magazine

Summit Land Conservancy’s Cheryl Fox has championed open-space preservation for 32 years.

It’s the classic Parkite story. Come for a ski year, stay forever—after falling for the community and lifestyle. But for Cheryl Fox, who rolled into town 32 years ago for a ski instructor gig at Deer Valley Resort (a temporary career-path diversion post–Wall Street and pre–grad school), most of all, she connected with the land.

A self-described opinionated, type-A Virgo, Fox, now Summit Land Conservancy’s executive director, is one of the key champions of land preservation in a town where open space doesn’t come cheap. Just last November, voters approved an unprecedented $48 million bond to fund a $64 million 123-acre purchase, preventing the controversial Treasure Hill development above Old Town.

“Failure [of that bond] would have been catastrophic for our town,” says Fox. “I think it passed with an overwhelming majority because people recognized we all would have been impacted.” Beyond the change to the historic landscape, wildlife habitat, and recreation (the town’s tourism draw), she says, the project would have involved paving roads, improving sewers, and likely 10 years of construction trucks hauling past schools on Highway 248, adding to pollution, traffic, and road damage. And, she adds, the community would have picked up the tab.

The resort town development/open-space pendulum has not always swung in the conservationists’ favor, however. Fox first entered the land-preservation game alongside friends as part of the development watchdog CARG (Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth). The group, headed by Dana Williams (then future mayor), formed to battle the annexation—and development of—Empire Pass, then known as Flagstaff. CARG did not prevail, as evidenced by the density now peppering Daly Canyon, a place Fox fondly recalls as the “community’s collective backyard,” where folks backcountry skied and hiked, with nary a porte cochere in sight, back in the ’90s. But while their efforts didn’t keep development entirely at bay, Fox notes that Empire Pass now is smaller and more concentrated than proposed and includes 1,000 acres of preserved open space because of the folks who voiced their concerns. Plus, she met her husband, Dave Staley, a fellow CARG member, in the throes of the battle.

She was also struck by an activism bug—and a sense of responsibility and patriotism. “Our system requires people to stand up and speak when they feel like the government isn’t maybe doing the thing that it should be doing,” she says. “It only works if we show up.”

In 1998, along with her Leadership Park City classmates, Fox became one of the founding members of Conserving Our Open Lands (COOL), later known as Summit Land Conservancy. In typical resort-town fashion, she was “piecemealing a way to live,” teaching skiing, working at Dolly’s Bookstore, teaching English at Westminster College (after she earned that graduate degree at UC Berkeley), editing a Park City literary project, and working on her own novel. When COOL’s first director left after six months, she added open-space preservation advocacy to her résumé.

Over the decades, Fox has served as Summit Land Conservancy board member, “shameless” fundraiser, and executive director. She steered the land trust through a grueling national accreditation process, while brokering countless deals with landowners, helping an array of entities and individuals find middle ground, looking under every rock for funding, and advocating for land protection. Since its founding, the nonprofit—now six staffers strong—has managed to save and protect 5,800 acres (and counting) of land, primarily through conservation easements, while also delving into the realm of environmental justice by introducing at-risk kids to unstructured, outdoor play.

“Humans don’t develop into healthy adults if their habitat consists of computer screens and concrete,” she says. “These kids have a stake, too.”

Saving land requires folks willing to give up profitable development rights, ranchers and farmers who talk about their land “in terms of the life cycles of their trees.” Helping them, Fox says, is an honor. To balance the interests of the landowner, community, and environment, the conservancy relies on what Fox calls “free-market environmentalism,” more of a carrot than a stick approach.

The path to open-space preservation “hasn’t been easy,” says Myles Rademan, former city public affairs director and Leadership Park City founder. “In the early days, we had a lot of low-hanging fruit. Now it’s expensive. It’s controversial. And everyone has a different opinion about it. Cheryl just has not given up. She’s been able to preserve a great deal of the landscape here. And she’s damn good at it,” he says.

So, why does Fox do what she does? She does it because her hometown of Villa Park, California, no longer has any “park”—shared open space—in it. She does it because the colorful farms on the drive she remembers from Orange County to San Diego have become vast, depressing slabs of concrete. She does it because Empire Pass is not the same backcountry haven the community once had. She does it because she feels she has a duty to stand up, a responsibility to this community, this place that captivated her 32 years ago.

“These shared landscapes become gathering places, places we all love, and we all have a little bit of a stake in them,” she says. “When we’re out there on the trails or just looking at those spaces, or watching the elk move across them, they are definitely part of who we are.” 

Image: Shutterstock

And when she’s not saving land, Cheryl Fox may be found…

Hitting the Trail: La Dee Duh (Round Valley)

Skiing: Grizzly Run, Deer Valley Resort

Or teaching skiing (now a Level 8 instructor): “Skiing is this dance with gravity, and it’s just so much fun. But [ski instructing] is also a job where you have to be physically engaged. And you have to be mentally engaged. It also involves your soul because you have to listen to things that people won’t actually verbalize.”

Restoring her soul: Creative writing (not yoga). Every Monday, after the house empties, Fox puts on her Pandora station, makes her second cup of tea, and dives into writing her pre-industrial fantasy novels. “I think it was Brené Brown who said famously that ‘unused creativity is not benign.’ I had to go to therapy to learn that.”

Reading: Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett

Drinking: Tea, preferably Upton Tea Imports, loose leaf. Whole milk, no sugar. Or, perhaps, Mount Gay rum and tonic.

Savoring open space: Steven’s Grove in Oakley

Diving into her next project: Writing a parenting blog. “I really have no qualifications whatsoever. It’s really all about tone. But I do have strong opinions.”

Pursuing her nonwork goal for 2019: Publishing her trilogy of novels  

Spending time with the clan: Husband Dave Staley, and daughters Faith (19) and Willoughby (17). Dog: Rosalind Fox. “The dogs get named after me. The kids get named after him. My one nod to patriarchal culture.” Cat: Elizabeth-the-Toothless

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