Utah’s Natural Disneyland: Does the increased traffic and tourism of wild Utah hurt the environment?

By Zach Dugdale

In order to keep the wilderness of Utah alive and healthy, new regulations on development and conservation efforts must be on par with tourism traffic.

The state of Utah is an outdoor recreation mecca. Home of five national parks, 14 skis resorts and countless other hidden areas for rock climbing, cliff jumping, hiking, backpacking and mountain biking areas, Utah offers incredible natural terrain minutes from a rapidly growing city area.

This unique combination of city life and outdoor recreation opportunity has caused Utah to become home to outdoor gear companies like Black Diamond, Petzl, Klymit, Kitten Factory, Backcountry.com, as well as multiple others.

Utah has also become the host state of massive gear and tradeshows such as the Outdoor Retailer and the Adventure Gear fest, which help companies to grow and become recognized in the industry.

The growth of the outdoor gear industry in Utah is a direct result of increased tourism and participation in these outdoor sports, which is a major source of income for the state.  According to the Utah Tourism Data Sheet compiled by The Policy Institute at the University of Utah, the state made $133.6 million dollars in tourism-related tax revenue in 2014, thanks in part to the over seven million national park visitors and the nearly four million ski visitors that explored the state.

Even still, the state of Utah is making advances and efforts to further increase tourist traffic.

The slippery slope of Utah’s rapidly growing ski industry

Recently, Vail Resorts combined the previous areas of Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort to make the largest ski resort in the nation. Other plans, such as SkiLink and One Wasatch, have attempted to combine the seven ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City to increase tourism and skiable terrain.

One Wasatch, for example, proposes to connect all seven ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains with multiple ski lifts.  This means an increase in development of the canyons, increased traffic and decreased backcountry and wild terrain, all simply to increase the amount of tax revenue the state receives.

The state of Utah has also created organizations designed to increase tourism by glamorizing and commercializing the ski industry. At the 2016 Adventure Gear fest in Salt Lake City, a representative from Ski City, a promotional organization attempting to increase tourism in Utah by presenting Salk Lake City as the perfect destination for skiers, commented on the efforts of the organization to increase tourism.

“Over the last couple years,” the representative said, “marketing programs related to the 500-plus inches of snow, city campaigns, and purchasing media spots in Australia and Asia have provided new growth for the industry.” Utah has become an international ski destination, showing increases in traffic of people from all over the globe.

Increased traffic equals decreased health

Nearly all of the life in Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas is sustained in one way or another by the Wasatch Mountains. With such a massive influx of tourism and traffic to the state, particularly the ski areas and resorts, the health of the mountains must be kept at the forefront of developers minds. But is it?

The mountains are an extremely fragile watershed; a major source of water for thousands. The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest website indicates that over 60% of the water used by residents of the Salt Lake Valley comes from canyons in the Wasatch Mountains.

The watershed of the Wasatch mountains is so fragile that dogs and other domestic animals are banned from some of the areas in the mountains, and, according to Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, a car spilling oil in one of the canyons is all it takes to stop the intake of water into the treatment plants at the base of the canyons.

Increased development, tourism and traffic of the Wasatch also has extremely negative effects on the air quality of the Salt Lake valley.  With the air in the valley reaching peak levels of toxins and pollution in recent years, the question remains how much more traffic the environment can handle.

What is being done?

Fortunately, people such as Carl Fisher and groups such as Save Our Canyons and the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance have become involved in protecting not only Utahans’ natural resources, but also in stopping further development of the Wasatch. Increased resort development designed to attract tourists simply invades on the rapidly decreasing areas of remaining true wilderness left in the Wasatch that local outdoor enthusiasts have grown to love.

“There are so many people in the backcountry now, and so any more resort development is just going to limit that space even more” stated a representative of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance at the 2016 Adventure Gear Fest.

With the state of Utah’s pockets being increasingly deepened by tourism and tourist activity, new conservationist movements designed to educate people on how to use the canyons will become increasingly important.

Utahans ultimately ski and snowboard on the same water that they drink. Given such a relationship, locals, tourists and legislators alike must monitor, regulate, and conserve.