A Little Cotton-tary

Little Cottonwood EIS Comments

Pedaling up to Alta in late June. Took me
less time than some drives this winter.

Sharing is such a tricky concept. We are taught it as a cornerstone of societal behavior. Yet the economy strives on the principle of "mine". Thinking about it now, sharing seems to get more difficult as the parties involved grow in number. Nowhere is this more evident than Little Cottonwood Canyon. This unique canyon (even within the Wasatch) combines the best snow in Utah with the presence of a truly iconic resort (Alta), and a second resort that provides the only true, full-service destination skiing on the Wasatch Front (Snowbird). Then throw in the fact that Little Cottonwood is avalanche prone and has only a two lane road as the point of access, and you have a tipping point where many of us are less inclined to share. The growth associated with economic success inevitably forces us to explore a system that makes sharing work for all parties involved.

With that prologue, I want to share my official comment related to the UDOT Little Cottonwood Draft EIS proposal for managing traffic. While we're all learning to share our canyons with people from all over the country, it's nice to know that UDOT is addressing the transportation issue. While 3 hours up the canyon is probably nothing for the Jersey tourist that drives that long or more to get to the shore, it is a major joykill for those of us living in Salt Lake.

Trying to keep my email professional and within the scope of the plan was important, but I thought my blog would be a great place to air out some additional, out-of-scope comments. So following the email are some observations and thoughts I feel are germane to the topic.

Dear members of the Little Cottonwood Draft EIS Group,

First of all, thank you for tackling what is a critical and daunting task for our Wasatch Mountains. It's apparent to all of us who love Little Cottonwood that the status quo is not sustainable. While many of us have divergent views on how best to preserve Little Cottonwood's character, I think we all agree that transportation is ultimately where change needs to start, and I appreciate UDOT taking the initiative.

After attending your public meeting and listening to the proposals, I want to express my preference for the Enhanced Bus Service with Road Widening Proposal. I feel this proposal best blends traffic mitigation with preservation the canyon's character. While I don't exactly like gouging the canyon to widen the road, nothing will motivate mass transit use more than motorists watching UTA zip up a dedicated bus lane every 10 minutes. I want to emphasize that I think that a "bus only lane" is a crucial part of this plan; trapping busses in the same congestion as cars won't solve anything. I also think that widening a road and utilizing existing infrastructure may leave less of a "footprint" than a gondola. While I don't think the gondola would be that obscene an intrusion on the scenery (at least not as obscene as the "red snake" and cars parked on the side of the road), the road is "already there" after all.

I do, however, have some comments I'd like you to consider related to the Enhanced Service with Road Widening Proposal:

  • Roadside Parking - Yes, please prevent roadside parking. I suspect this may happen even sooner than any of these plans are enacted. This is a problem that will hopefully be alleviated by whatever solution is chosen, but eliminating roadside parking is yet another enticement for people to use mass transit. Now that Solitude has started charging for parking, it wouldn't surprise me if Alta and Snowbird follow suit at some point. Parking on the road will become more prevalent if that happens.
  • Trailhead Parking - I also think the canyon could benefit from improved but environmentally sensible parking lots near some trailheads with improved facilities, like bathrooms. Many may disagree with me on this, but as use increases, a county-wide recreation parking pass (basically expanding what's done in Millcreek) might be a good way to fund these improvements.
  • Pedestrian Use of Bus Lane - I especially like the idea of the bus lane being used for cyclists and pedestrians in the summer. I often ride the canyon myself and think motorists and cyclists will be in favor of this. I'm a little curious though how that would work in the snow sheds? Will they be lighted?
  • Summer Service - I would like to see UTA provide summer service, maybe on the weekends, for hikers. Just last weekend I saw cars overflowing from the White Pine lot before 9am.
  • White Pine Stop - Could a bus stop be added at White Pine for the benefit of backcountry skiers? This lot is also frequently overloaded in the winter.
  • Lockers at the Resort - To improve the experience on the busses, I would love to see the forest service encourage Snowbird and Alta to provide more season-long lockers for locals. I personally can manage my gear, but it's not fun and watching a parent try to wrangle two kids with ski gear on the bus is painful. The less of us that have gear on the bus, the better. 
I would also like to add some comments on the Gondola Proposal. This would be my second choice, but here are my concerns:
  • Mobility Hub on 94th - The reasoning explained at the meeting for not having a mobility hub at 94th was that larger busses could be used from the Fort Union hub and accommodate more skiers. To me, that's just creating an unnecessary traffic issue at the mouth of Big Cottonwood. For those of that live south of Fort Union, driving to the current Little Cottonwood bus stop at 94th is a major enticement to take the bus. I would like it to be an enticement for the gondola as well.
  • Access to White Pine - I'm not expecting the gondola to stop at White Pine for backcountry skiers, but a trail from Snowbird would be helpful. This could encourage backcountry skiers to also take the gondola.
  • Summer Gondola Service / Allow Bikes - Once again, traffic problems in the canyon are not restricted to the winter anymore. By allowing bikes, mountain bikers and hikers will have an efficient way to get up and down the canyon.
  • Alta's Gondola Alternative - As a season pass holder at Alta, I was sent an email by them (presumably to get me to comment on their behalf) that they would prefer the Gondola Proposal with a parking facility at the "base". I'm not sure what they mean by "base" but I assume they mean the mouth of the canyon. Let me be clear: I do not want a parking structure at the mouth of the canyon. This seems counterproductive as it would just add congestion at the mouth. I'm not even sure where you would put it?

Thank you again for accepting my input. Mason J. Diedrich Sandy, UT

"Out of Scope" comments

Here is where I want to share some of my color commentary. Most of this is directed toward "us", not UDOT. Think of it as my reality check for those who think a) UDOT is the bad guy here or b) just need some perspective.

People, accept the Ikon pass isn't going anywhere. During the public meeting, conducted on Zoom, we were all encouraged to add our questions to the Comments sidebar. Apart from Elon Musk's toadie filling it with pie-in-the-sky, hypertunnel propaganda and the person who suggested SkiLink, the next most annoying comments were those asking UDOT and the Forest Service to "do something about the Ikon". I agree, the Ikon pass is driving more visitors to the canyon, but so has: the economy, the growth of skiing, the affordability of gear, and the Recreational Industrial Complex (a handle I've applied to the amorphous, well-meaning marketing monolith that encompasses everything from social media "influencers" to retailers to manufacturers to government funded tourism boards). The Recreational Industrial Complex has done exactly what any capitalist entity does: find a way to justify its existence. By creating a demand, they create growth — but back to Ikon. It's not up UDOT, or even the Forest Service, to tell ski resorts how to run their business; to think otherwise shows a level of naivety that ranks between "Ski resorts care about season pass holders" and "I've skied Catherine's Area, so I'm a backcountry skier."

What constitutes "marring the character of the canyon" is incredibly subjective, so just please accept that it won't always look the way it looks now. Nobody I know wanted a roller coaster on the flanks of Superior, but instead we got a convention center on Hidden Peak. Nobody I know wants a lift up Emma Ridge, nobody I know wants Grizzly Gulch developed, nobody I know wants a lift to the top of Baldy; but I think at least one of those is possible in the next 50 years. Remember when we never thought we'd see high-speed quads other than Sugarloaf?

What everyone I know does want is to kill the red snake. Widening the road or adding a gondola is going to change the Little Cottonwood we have come to love, but to think that our ideal of preserving the canyon in ambrosia is more important than addressing this crisis is foolish. Yes, the enhanced bus service without road widening is an option, but it's a half-measure in my opinion. As my friend Jared put it, the only way you're going to get people to use mass transit is if they see a UTA bus zipping up a bus-only lane on a powder day. Tolls and ridesharing apps are all good, but as we've seen during this pandemic, nobody does anything for the "greater good", they do it for themselves. People are going to continue to ski, and the idea that traffic will be a "limiting factor" is nuts. I worry that allowing for market forces to limit skiers will morph into a "pay to play" scenario in an already expensive sport. Until we provide enticements to take mass transit, no one will use it. As I said in my email, the road is already there, modify the resources we have and give skiers a better way to get to Alta and Bird.

Alta Ski Lifts continues to be in their own world. As I said in the email, I got a marketing email from Mike Maughan, President and General Manager of Alta, saying he supports the gondola, but with a parking lot at the base. I guess I agree with him that more than one mobility hub is needed, but I don't want the mouth of the canyon turned into a parking lot. As far as I know, Alta doesn't own any land at the mouth, nor are they contributing financially in anyway to this project. So how do they presume the state government, who will have to fund this, goes about doing that? I guess there is some public land there near Temple Quarry, but I wonder how residents around there would feel knowing that all this work to alleviate traffic in the canyon does nothing to address the traffic going past their front door? Oh, and they get to stare at a big beautiful parking structure to boot. I actually emailed Alta back asking for details on their proposal, but never heard back from them. As with any sort of long-term use planning for Little Cottonwood, Alta's truculent attitude is frustrating. It's ironic that they never waste a chance to remind us that Grizzly Gulch is "their property" and they'll do what they want with it, so I feel like UDOT should reply back with, "This is our plan Alta, piss off."

Whew, there you go. One man's voice amidst a loud chorus of opinions. I want to conclude by saying thank you UDOT for taking this on. I've watched Mountain Accord and Central Wasatch Commission try to take a big picture approach to all this, but like so many grand designs, it's tough to get a result out of the morass. Let's hope by taking this one step, we get a plan that helps us share what we have and feel good about it.


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