Forest Service hoping to reopen popular Big Cottonwood Canyon area closed over permit issue

Oct 2, 2022, 10:40 PM | Updated: Oct 3, 2022, 6:05 am

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — The U.S. Forest Service is trying to work through a permit issue with private landowners right next to one of the most popular hiking trails along the Wasatch Front.

The disagreement has cut off public access to a road up Big Cottonwood Canyon that people use for hiking and backcountry skiing access in the winter.

Families and outdoor enthusiasts flock to the Donut Falls area for portraits or to visit one of the area’s best-known waterfalls. Some simply want a breath of fresh air in the wilderness.

“I came just to hike and kind of enjoy the fall colors,” said Carson Earl on Sunday as he took off from the Donut Falls trailhead.

Unbeknownst to Earl and other hikers, an issue with public access unfolds right next to the busy spot.

“It’s a very popular area for backcountry skiing, hiking. We’re getting emails and calls about it,” said Ben Kraja, acting district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service Salt Lake Ranger District.

He explained the calls and emails regarding Forest Service Road 019, just past the Donut Falls trailhead in an area called Cardiff Fork.

“As you go up the road, the road ownership changes from Forest Service, to private, back to Forest Service, back to private, back to some other utilities,” he said. “So it’s a mixed ownership on the road.”

There’s a gate just above the Donut Falls trailhead with a sign that says no public motorized access is allowed year-round. That includes private landowners.

At the same time, because part of the road is on private property, which means the public wouldn’t be able to hike up or get to some popular backcountry ski spots.

That’s why the Forest Service had a special permit in place for the past decade, which allowed the private landowners to have motorized access on the road to their properties in exchange for allowing the public to access the private parts of the road. Kraja called the situation a “win-win.”

But when the permit expired this year, Kraja said they received emails from the landowners saying they didn’t want to renew the permit. The permit expired, cutting off all access to everyone.

According to Kraja, not everyone was sticking to the road in the private property sections when they went up there to recreate.

“That was some of the grievances from the private property owners, and we acknowledge that,” he said. He added that they want to spread awareness that people need to do their homework and understand where they are recreating and what land they’re allowed to be on.

But on the other side of it, Kraja indicated that landowners didn’t always uphold their end of the deal, either. They had to issue a few letters of noncompliance to property owners, he said.

“They had motorized vehicle use — non-commercial ingress and egress — but it was only for the road to their private parcel. They were, however, driving off the route, and that creates resource damage issues for us,” he said.

Kraja added that other issues included parking property owners parking trailers where they shouldn’t and not updating the Forest Service with the list of users who were being given motorized access up the canyon.

With the permit expired, landowners cannot reach their properties.

Kraja hopes they can come to the table with all parties and renegotiate a permit.

He said they have reached out to the landowners and got a response from a lawyer that “they’re thinking about it, and said they’ll get back in touch with us.”

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Forest Service hoping to reopen popular Big Cottonwood Canyon area closed over permit issue