Nonprofits Working to Protect Utah’s Natural Spaces
Utah is defined by its iconic landscapes.
Millions of visitors are drawn to the Beehive State each year to enjoy natural wonders ranging from snowcapped peaks in the Wasatch Mountains to red rock deserts in Southern Utah. Outdoor recreation has grown into a major Utah industry, generating $12 billion annually, and the state’s natural beauty is often a driving factor in enticing major companies to set up shop within its borders.
A few nonprofit groups in Utah have put time and energy into preserving the natural resources that make the state unique. Their goals all center on protecting and preserving the exact things that fuel explosive economic growth and lend to a high quality of life in Utah.
Utah Rivers Council
For two decades, the Utah Rivers Council has worked to protect rivers in Utah by doing everything from promoting water conservation to fighting pollution. Battling some of these issues has been a full-time endeavor for council members, but it is a battle they see as critical to Utah’s outdoor future.
“Businesses aren’t moving to Utah just because there’s a nice view,” says Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “They’re moving to Utah because their employees like to go outdoors. We need to maintain the quality of our outdoor recreational experience. Otherwise, we’re not going to be competitive.”
Utah Rivers Council is doing its part to preserve Utah’s landscape by, among other things, opposing development projects it believes pose a threat to the health of major rivers and lakes. One such project would divert more than 220,000-acre-feet of water from the Bear River before it reaches the Great Salt Lake under the auspices of the 1992 Bear River Development Act.
Such a large-scale diversion could devastate the ecosystem surrounding the lake, says Frankel, removing an estimated 20 percent of the annual flow from Bear River before it reaches the Great Salt Lake. This would drop the lake by a minimum of two to four feet and dry up tens of thousands of acres of wetlands.
That would strike a blow to the vast bird populations supported by Great Salt Lake, the largest wetland ecosystem in the American West. Between 8 and 10 million migratory birds—a total of more than 230 species—are supported by more than 400,000 acres of wetlands along the shoreline. The Bear River development could destroy their habitat and threaten their lives.
“We have a regressive 19th century perspective on water,” Frankel says. “It’s just there to use, period. The Utah legislature essentially believes rivers have no legal right to exist and there’s no reason why we should leave any water for the fish and wildlife species. That’s out of step with where most Utahns are at. It’s certainly out of step with why businesses move to Utah. Clearly why Utah is attractive to businesses, in part, is the outdoor lifestyle. We hear that again and again.”
One thing the Utah Rivers Council wants to do is phase out property taxes on water. A rate structure would replace property taxes, splitting rates into pricing tiers based on usage to discourage waste and encourage conservation.
Utah has the cheapest water rate of any Western state. In July 2015, St. George used about 28,000 gallons of water per capita and paid $1.11 per 1,000 gallons. The same amount of water usage in Seattle, for example, would cost $15.78 per 1,000 gallons.
Ultra-low prices subsidized through taxes, Frankel says, have led to Utah having the highest water consumption rate in the nation. Eliminating the taxes and letting the market dictate the price would curtail waste and take the burden off homeowners and business owners alike to pay for it.
“That’s why we’re trying to get rid of these taxes,” Frankel says. “We don’t want to make water expensive per se. We just don’t want it subsidized.”
Save Our Canyons
Since 1972, Save Our Canyons has worked to protect the Wasatch Mountains through fighting to expand wilderness areas and extending additional protections on public lands and watersheds. One key area of focus has been on the central portion of the Wasatch Mountains.
The Central Wasatch Mountains receive 6 million visits annually from tourists—more than all five national parks in Utah combined. Sixty percent of the Salt Lake Valley depends on it for water. Protecting this range from succumbing to mountain sprawl is a key goal for Save Our Canyons.
“That’s what people don’t want to see,” says Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons. “We have infrastructure in and around the Salt Lake Valley that people want to go into the mountains to escape. They want to be rejuvenated. They want to exercise. It makes them happy. It makes them more productive.”
Save Our Canyons has worked for the creation of a Wasatch National Monument. This designation would protect approximately 170,000 acres of wilderness extending from Parley’s Canyon down to the Provo River from any future development.
The organization is also a participant in the Mountain Accord, an agreement signed in July that opened the door for land swaps between the U.S. Forest Service and Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird ski resorts. The four resorts swapped 2,147 undeveloped acres for 760 acres of federal land located near canyon bottoms.
Fisher says protecting Utah’s natural landscape from being altered through excessive development benefits Utah businesses because it maintains a high quality of life for their workforce that lives here.
“There is a perpetual desire for the ski industry to expand and flourish,” Fisher says. “We hope they can expand their business models without expanding geographically. The landscape up there—our watersheds, the national forest, wildlife habitat—those are all finite resources. Once they’re developed and once they’re altered, they’re no longer in their natural state forever.”
Protecting the outdoors isn’t limited to conserving water resources or curbing excessive commercial or residential development. For Breathe Utah, the state of the air itself plays a critical role in the future health of Utah’s outdoor recreation industry.
Since 2010, Breathe Utah has focused on improving air quality statewide—especially in urban areas along the Wasatch Front. It works with legislators, business leaders and community leaders to develop long-range plans for reducing pollution.
Education has been a major tool in this effort. Breathe Utah developed a program that takes air quality science education into local schools. In five years, the organization has reached more than 10,000 students in grades K through 12. Last year alone, 35 schools participated in this educational program.
Breathe Utah wants Utah residents to understand that poor air quality is not just a health hazard. It can cause damage in many areas—including economic ones.
“Though air quality is categorized as an environmental focus, it is very much an economic conversation,” says Erin Mendenhall, policy director for Breathe Utah. “One of either the most beautiful views or most disturbing views is flying into the Salt Lake International Airport between the two mountain ranges. You’re either seeing beautiful mountain ranges or submerging into the pollution. That has made an impact.”
Poor air quality, Mendenhall says, has driven away some businesses considering relocating to Utah. Those sorts of losses can create a reputation Utah can’t afford as it positions itself as a destination for many different industries.
Mendenhall says not all of Utah’s pollution is locally produced. Most of the ozone pollution in Utah, for example, is transport ozone that comes from as far away as China. Still, local businesses and residents in several counties are not compliant with the Clean Air Act, and this can be damaging to a state known for its pristine natural beauty.
“Our urban air quality issues have an effect on our statewide economy,” Mendenhall says. “It has an effect on potential that is lost, but also in the federal mandates that come into play because we are not compliant with the Clean Air Act in several counties. Those rules affect us—the way we do business and the way we’re allowed to do business in our state.”