Walking on a Dream -- Land&People

On a wintry afternoon near the solstice, a trim, bearded University of Utah administrator named Rick Reese climbs from a car in a foothill cul-de-sac ten minutes from the busiest intersection in Salt Lake City. An enthusiastic man, he brims with energy as he strides off down a mountain path, through Gambel oak thickets and across hills lightly thatched by dry grass, toward a perch above the Salt Lake Valley with an astonishing view.

He stands on the flanks of the Wasatch Mountains—the westernmost rampart of the Rockies—a range that encompasses tens of thousands of acres of public land. Immediately to the west of its snowy ridgeline lies a 120-mile-long irrigated strip along the mountain front, settled in 1847 by Mormon pioneers under the leadership of prophet Brigham Young. Today that slice of arable land is home to nearly 80 percent of Utah's two million residents.

Creating an everyday connection with wildness for these people preoccupies Rick Reese. If all goes as hoped, this trail he hikes someday will stretch more than 100 miles north to south along the Wasatch Front, tracing the ancient shoreline of Lake Bonneville. This vanished Pleistocene lake once spread, a thousand feet deep and the size of Lake Michigan, across the desert basins of western Utah.

From Santaquin in the south to Brigham City in the north, the Bonneville Shoreline Trail will contour along the eastern edge of forty Utah communities. It will pass universities, Mormon temples, gated enclaves, wilderness areas, state and city parks, high-tech research firms, newborn subdivisions, schools, farms and horse pastures, freeways, and golf courses. On a level mountainside bench left by the receding lake, valley residents will come to hike, bike, run, ride horseback, or ski. Every mile or so, the route will intersect the mountain canyons and their connecting trails leading to the Wasatch above and the cities below.

"Down in the valley, a million people live within a half-hour of this trailhead, and yet where the trail turns into the hills you can't see or hear the city. You might as well be in Alaska's Brooks Range," says Reese, who co-chairs the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, a grassroots advocacy group that promotes and coordinates the planning of the trail. "The trail just seems so self-evidently right, I can't imagine how anyone can resist it."

A Race with Development

 

Moving from short isolated segments of the trail to the envisioned 100-mile continuous trail has been difficult, however, in part because so many communities must buy in to the wisdom of the effort and move to preserve the land. Nowhere has protection been more difficult than at canyon mouths—prime building sites located right where trailheads must provide access from the valley to the mountains.

Up and down the Wasatch Front, advocates and neighborhood groups race to save key parcels before development overwhelms them. Rick Reese admits, "Every day our work becomes vastly more difficult." He wishes the industrious Mormon pioneers had incorporated the trail in their plan for the state: "If only Brigham Young had proclaimed, 'There will be trails on the bench,' our problems would be solved."

The Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee unifies the vision, while activists bring the energy needed to fight for each canyon. Without their partnership, the trail would not exist. They must win it, piece by piece, community by community, segment by widely spaced segment over its 100-mile length. "We're always out being provocateurs, stirring up the neighborhoods," Reese says. "You finish a few miles here and there, and people have no choice but to sign on."

The effort goes back to the 1980s, when hikers began finding survey stakes along foothill trails. Only then did they discover that their traditional routes crossed private land. For many years before this, Wasatch Front communities grew at a modest pace. Orchards and farmland offered breathing space between the cities. But as the state began to boom, the Front began filling in, and suburban development began climbing the hills.

Today, despite its Wild West image, Utah ranks as the sixth most urbanized state in the Union and is rated the nation's best place to do business. Software and biotech industries fuel the growth; the remarkable geographic setting and recreational opportunities convince newcomers to stay. The approach of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, with venues slated from Ogden to Provo in addition to the mountain events, has cranked up the pace of investment still further, including $1.7 billion to widen the urban-corridor Interstate 15 to ten lanes.

"Salt Lake's story is the story of the modern West," says Margaret Eadington of the Trust for Public Land. "Like other fast-growing cities around the region, public open space lies close at hand, but access is disappearing beneath burgeoning development. It's now or never along the Wasatch Front. Once these canyons are subdivided, public access to the mountains will be gone."

In the 1930s Salt Lake City began acquiring mountain watershed lands that create an upper limit to development. On the valley floor, however, development has been furious. Construction cranes rise into the downtown sky, and hundreds of half-built houses march across the suburban landscape. One recent projection triples the Wasatch Front population to five million by 2050, with 66,000 acres of farmland lost in the process. In 1992 the city approved its first citywide master plan in twenty-five years, in part because residents realized they could no longer take the foothills for granted.

Salt Lake City planning maps show the new Bonneville Shoreline Trail as one side of an open space "ladder," with the other side formed by the mid-valley Jordan River Parkway. Running between these two long green spaces, like the rungs of the ladder, wooded corridors follow the creeks westward, down from the Wasatch. These reclaimed streams, according to the city master plan, "physically and psychologically reconnect the mountains and the lake."

The Citizens' Trail

 

The actual idea for the full-length Bonneville Trail may have come from Randy Welsh, who once worked as a ranger for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. In 1990 Welsh was appointed to an Ogden trails committee organized when development threatened a popular canyon hike. Welsh had heard of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee and its plan for a trail along the old lakeshore. As he thought about trails in Ogden, he began to think about trail systems and to ask: why not a 100-mile-long trail along the entire Wasatch Front? For the Forest Service, the trail would offer a transportation corridor and fire break. For the cities, it would serve as a barrier to development higher up the slopes. And for citizens, it would become a recreational treasure.

Eventually Welsh shared his vision with Margaret Eadington at TPL, which brought its funding tools and negotiating expertise to the trail effort. Within a year Eadington began fielding phone calls from activists across the region asking for help with acquiring land and linking trail segments. Today TPL has assisted with the purchase of two properties along the trail, is in the final stages of negotiating a third, and has optioned four parcels—with an interest in twenty more.

But, as Eadington says, "this is not an effort anyone is directing but an idea that has caught fire from the grassroots." Volunteers, Eagle Scouts, and church groups are creating the trail on Saturday mornings, with picks and shovels. Neighborhood trail advocates are lobbying landowners and negotiating easements with water companies. Construction companies are donating designs and materials for bridges that National Guard helicopters fly in, ready to install. Of the 100 miles of trail, one-third is in place. Hikers can reach the trail from at least two dozen access points.

"The Bonneville Trail is happening because citizens are making it happen. People are doing this," says Ann Parr, an energetic woman who moved to relatively rural Draper in 1984 to have room for her horses. In the years since, Parr has seen the small farming community on the outskirts of Salt Lake City "give up the notion that we can remain rural, that we were going to sell eggs forever."

More than anything, the Draper section of the trail sprang from persistence, she believes. As a citizen Parr lobbied for trails in the late 1970s, but she could attract little interest from the city council. Almost eighteen years later (and after serving for eight years on the city planning commission herself) Draper has an official trail map, and the local section of the Bonneville Trail is nearly half complete. "You know how the Bonneville Shoreline Trail happened here?" she says. "We drew a line on the map! The city officials figured, 'Hey, it's in the master plan, we had better do it.'"

Thirty miles south, Francine Bennion tells a similar story. Bennion, a soft-voiced music professor retired from Brigham Young University, began hiking in Provo's Rock Canyon in the early 1960s while still a BYU student. She and her husband later built a home near the canyon, and her kids grew up scaling its cliffs. "Rock Canyon is small enough that you can grasp it," she says, "yet big enough to be spectacular."

In the 1980s, as development increased in town, Bennion found herself attending public hearings about new projects with increasing frequency—and always seeing "the same little cluster of people" as concerned as she was about the canyon's future. "We had no money or power. But after we organized, gave ourselves a name (the Rock Canyon Preservation Alliance), and took out an ad in the paper signed by 765 voters, we could no longer be brushed off."

The advocates persisted through years of negotiation until the city agreed to buy the land. When Rock Canyon Trailhead Park opened on National Trails Day (June 1, 1996), the new signs pointed both up the canyon into the mountains and north along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

This, then, is how trail advocates build the trail—mile by mile, piece by piece. They must confront what Ann Parr calls Utah's "unrelenting commitment to private property rights." In a state with nearly two-thirds of its land in federal ownership—held in trust for all Americans—many Utahans bristle at moving still more land from private to public ownership.

To Walk On A Dream

 

No one believes that finishing the trail will be easy, in Salt Lake or anywhere along the Wasatch Front. "There are only a few logical places the trail can go," says Gerrish Willis, a land specialist with Uinta National Forest, "and it's often through somebody's backyard." For every canyon saved, a dozen more need the loyal and ardent attention of neighborhood volunteers. Willis cites fifteen critical Utah Valley properties in need of protection, but he's finding landowners slow to sell. With development strong and developable land scarce, landowners dream that parcels worth $6,000 per acre today will inflate to $60,000 per acre in ten years.

Still, money for land purchases has begun to flow. In Salt Lake City, midway along the mountain front, the Steiner Family Foundation donated $45,000 in seed money for a thirteen-mile demonstration section of the trail, to be completed this summer. In November 1997, thanks in part to critical support from Utah Senator Bob Bennett, the project received its first federal appropriation, $500,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Buoyed by this and by city and state matches for the Steiner grant, trail advocates have begun to regard their dream as achievable—to believe one day that they may walk on their accomplishments along the entire length of the ancient lakeshore.

Rick Reese believes that TPL's initial interest was crucial in legitimizing trail supporters and, more recently, in leveraging money for land acquisition from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. "We never would have had that money without TPL.

"The bottom line," concludes Reese, "is the power of private-public partnership. This was a bold, ambitious undertaking when we began seven years ago, and it's still ambitious. We couldn't do it without the cities and counties. And one municipality or agency can't pull it off. They need the political horsepower of citizens. Together, we can conquer any opposition."


 

Land & People, 1998

 

 

Writer and photographer Stephen Trimble lives five minutes below the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Salt Lake City. His many books include The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places (with Gary Nabhan) and Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness (with Terry Tempest Williams).