Editor's Letter

Admiring From Afar

"I choose to ride the lifts for the same reason I buy powder skis and wear gloves: it makes skiing a whole lot more pleasant."

By Melissa Fields January 1, 2016 Published in the Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Park City Magazine

My best days on the mountain happen when I get to sling my skis onto my shoulder and go for a walk. Whether the destination is Park City’s Jupiter Peak or Baldy at Snowbird, I do it for the powder on snowy days and to get a little exercise when it’s sunny. And though I love the solitude and feeling of gritty independence these inbounds bootpacks give me, they are about as close as I care to venture to backcountry skiing. I choose to ride the lifts for the same reason I buy powder skis and wear gloves: it makes skiing a whole lot more pleasant.

That said, I consider those vast tracts of undeveloped land beyond the resort boundaries one of Utah’s most precious assets. Tucked into the mountains yet surrounded by cities, the Central Wasatch backcountry defines northern Utah in the same way that the red-rock desert is the backbone of southern Utah. Annual visits to these lands are almost as numerous as those to Utah’s five national parks. They also supply drinking water to most of the people living on both the Wasatch Front and Back. For these reasons and others, I have followed the progress of the Mountain Accord with great interest.

Launched a little more than two years ago, the Mountain Accord (mountainaccord.com) seeks to bring together all Central Wasatch Mountain stakeholders—from ski resorts and conservation groups to municipalities, transportation entities, and the general public—to develop a long-term plan for managing this unique wilderness. “We all agreed to check our weapons at the door, sit down, and find some kind of common ground,” says Chris Robinson, a member of both the Summit County Council and the Mountain Accord executive board.

Transportation occupied the lion’s share of Mountain Accord conversations during its first phase, which ended last fall. But after largely negative public reaction to proposals involving trains, tunnels, and changing the seasonal status of the road over Guardsman Pass between Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City, the focus of the Accord’s second phase has shifted to where it should be: protecting the Central Wasatch backcountry.

Soon the Mountain Accord executive board will ask Congress to create a special federal designation for approximately 80,000 acres in the Central Wasatch, including around 900 acres in Summit County, with the intent of beefing up these lands’ current and easily amendable US Forest Service protection status. The specific kind of designation—and even what Mountain Accord board members plan to call the land once it’s protected—is still up in the air, but it probably will not include the word “monument.” “Since executive authority under the Antiquities Act was used to create the Grand Staircase–Escalante, ‘monument’ has become a bit of a swear word in some circles,” Robinson says.

Achieving this special federal designation, as you might guess, will not be easy. Many of Utah’s congressional delegates are leaders in the national campaign to turn federally managed lands over to state control, and the Mountain Accord’s plan also calls for still-in-the-works land swaps to occur between the four Cottonwood Canyons resorts and the Forest Service. But if the Mountain Accord board can wade through the impending politics, it could mean that the few remaining undeveloped pieces of the Park City ridgeline—Monitor Peak, Scott’s Hill, Dutch Draw, and the Crest Trail—would remain so in perpetuity.

Maybe then I’ll finally take an avalanche safety class, buy some climbing skins, and start earning my turns in the backcountry. But probably not. After one or two inbounds hikes, I’ll do what I always do: glide gratefully back to the lifts and be content to savor a view that I know will never include condos, chairlifts, or cars.

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