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SALT LAKE CITY — The Wasatch Front's population increased by 40% in an 18-year-time span, which in turn has increased the number of people heading outdoors for recreation, putting pressure on natural landscapes.
The road up Little Cottonwood Canyon may be only 7 miles long, but it handles more than 6,000 vehicles and 12,000 people on peak days.
What's the tipping point, and have the Wasatch canyons reached it?
On Monday, the Central Wasatch Commission heard presentations about the push for a capacity study dealing with the tri-canyon area of Little, Big and Millcreek canyons — and whether that is necessary at this time.
The call for such a study comes as the Utah Department of Transportation and other entities are engaged in an environmental review of what type of road improvements or other steps can be taken to ease congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Ralph Becker, executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission, said a capacity study, or analysis that looks at a particular visitation threshold, is not necessarily off the table, but is outside the scope of the transportation analysis.
The goal, he stressed, is to relieve congestion and that doesn't automatically mean more visitors.
"How do you relieve congestion and address peak times and not necessarily increase congestion? It is all a big web we are trying to weave," he said.
The U.S. Forest Service operates the canyons on a 2003 plan that attempts to manage them based on visitation levels from 2000 to protect the watershed and recreational values.
Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service, concedes those numbers have been eclipsed.
"We know that parking has already increased with people parking on the roadside," he said. "We want to manage it in a more environmentally friendly way."
Whittekiend, like Becker, said any of the possible transportation improvements to ease congestion are not designed to boost visitor capacity.
"There would be no net increase of parking," he said. "Our intention is to, if at all possible, keep it at the level it is at."
That position has the Forest Service, the state transportation agency and the Central Wasatch Commission at odds with both environmental advocates and ski resorts.
On one side, Friends of Alta is pushing for such an analysis to look at ways to prevent further environmental degradation. Ski resorts such as Alta are hemmed in by parking lots that can only hold so many vehicles, yet the slopes can support more people — so capacity studies could potentially help them.
The Forest Service plan doesn't restrict capacity at ski resorts, which operate on federal land via permit, but the practical result of the 2000 management levels precludes expansion options.
Mike Maughan, general manager and president of Alta Ski Area, has publicly complained about outdated management plans that don't reflect the reality of canyon visitation.
The roadside parking is dangerous, and even when his lots are full the slopes could handle an additional 2,000 people, he's pointed out.
Friends of Alta's Pat Shea said at some point the throng of people will pose unacceptable risks to the watershed and forest health.
Becker said it is possible the commission's stakeholder group may form a subcommittee to look at the issue of visitor capacity.
"Here we are with these incredible mountains and with growing use in numbers and types of uses, and it is a relatively a small area geographically," he said. "It puts tremendous pressure (on the canyons) and those numbers are growing. Part of what that means is we've got to figure out how to manage that."