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Salt Lake City continues its pause on new trail system

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City announced it would continue to hold off any new development on its trail system plan Tuesday, as city leaders work to address concerns about how to meet a growing demand for recreation and conservation.

There are few areas in the country that boast so much open land so close to the capital city.

The foothills is currently home to more than 65 miles of trails, according to city officials, and many more miles are in the current plan.

“These foothill trails are our city’s most beautiful and admired place,” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall during a press conference near the start of the trails.

Even before 2020, Salt Lake City said they saw an increase in the number of people heading out to enjoy the outdoors. And then, the pandemic hit and “just put it exponentially higher,” according to Tyler Fonarow, the city’s trail projects specialist.

“We’re not just building trails, but we’re building trail culture because the people have to understand, we’re doing this together to conserve the lands,” Fonarow said. “To balance recreation and conservation.”

From 2016 to 2019, Fonarow said the city gathered information to grow its current trail system.

In 2020, they attempted to meet a growing demand for outdoor recreation with a new trail system proposal in the foothills that would add 65+ miles of paths.

The city approved the plan last year and phase one was underway when the city was hit with concerns about what the new plan would mean for conservation and sustainability.

“One of our core concerns was the sustainability of these trails, which seem to be compromised by weather events as we’re seeing,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “But also the intensity of the trail network.”

Fisher acknowledged the growing population has added to the urgency for updates, calling the pandemic “the great outdoor awakening.” But, he said, “responsibility comes with that, right?”

Fisher argued the city’s plan to separate trails for mountain bikers and hikers would ensure that “you end up with twice as much of the impact on the trails.”

“When you have people very intensively using the trail system, it displaces the wildlife that people are coming up her to see,” he said. “We’re not making more mountains.”

The response to the trail development prompted the city to pause its work and reach out for feedback from the community, various conservation groups and from tribal leaders who hold some parts of the land sacred.

“Their historical accounts and input on this land is invaluable,” Mayor Mendenhall said of the relationships they were building with tribal leaders.

The foothills remain a highlight of Salt Lake City. Their proximity and accessibility bring countless bikers and hikers to the land each year, but the dilemma remains for the city and others to work to find a balanced way forward.

“What do you value about this place and what’s your vision going forward? And try to temper your behavior to support that vision rather than take away from it,” Fisher said.

“A pathway forward that is more collaborative and communicative is possible for us. We are already on that pathway,” Mayor Mendenhall said.

The mayor said the pause on the trail system would continue until June 2022, when they expect to have gathered the information and feedback they need to move forward with an updated plan.

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