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UTAH STATE RESPONDS TO THREATENED LOSS OF OPEN SPACE

StudentsUtah State University has put the Wasatch Front under a microscope, indicating serious conflicts if nothing is done to preserve its remaining open space.

This assessment is a result of study titled “Alternative Futures for Utah’s Wasatch Front, Conservation of Open Space,” conducted by a team of faculty and students in Utah State’s College of Natural Resources.

Over the past year the team has been conducting the study in cooperation with community and state organizations, identifying critical open-space issues and devising potential action plans. Ideally, this study will help identify areas of conflict that may occur when considering future quality of life issues and land development.

Utah SceneryUtah’s landscape draws people from around the world. They witness snowy peaks jutting above 13,000 feet, red canyonlands spreading across the horizon and a picturesque collection of twisting washes, delicate arches, spires and buttes.

The great outdoors is one of the reasons why Utah experienced a 30 percent population increase between 1990 and 2000. According to Utah State professor and project coordinator Richard Toth, Utah’s population will continue to swell and communities will continue to experience the problems associated with urban sprawl unless new approaches to development are examined.

Thomas Edwards, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) biologist with the Utah Cooperative Research Unit, said urban encroachment is destroying Utah.

Development Probability“If Utah continues with its indiscriminate development of land, it will become one large city in the Salt Lake area and spread to the north, south, east and west,” said Edwards. “Cities will creep up mountains and into places Utahns value, turning Utah into one thick population mass with little aesthetic value.

“This idea scares people to death,” Edwards said. “This is Utah’s future. We don’t want it, but if we want something else, we’ll have to do something about it, because that is what is going to happen in a few short years.”

The study team in the College of Natural Resources is doing something about it. In the fall of 2001, as part of its service and outreach activites, faculty in the department of Environment and Society were asked by the Open Space Subcommittee of the Wasatch Front Regional Council to devise a conceptual plan that would balance development pressures with conservation of Utah’s natural resources. The study was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey/Biological Resources, the College of Natural Resources, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resouces and the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation.

“This isn’t your typical research project,” said Toth. “The project is unique and ambitious in that it encompasses almost 10,000 square miles — a land area roughly the size of the state of Maryland — including five counties (Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Tooele and Weber Counties), 53 cities and 64 percent of Utah’s population, about 1.4 million people.”

Canyone DevelopmentDoug Gibbons, a graduate student in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State, took part in the study last year. He analyzed the Wasatch Front on the ground and from the air. With maps of the area, he and his colleagues located and recorded detailed information about critical habitat, wetlands, agricultural lands, river buffers and threatened and endangered species. He also spoke with landowners, went to town meetings and studied past surveys of the Wasatch Front. Gibbons, in association with his teammates, helped identify what citizens of the region value.

“We found quite a bit of consensus about what each town values,” said Gibbons. “People want to see fields out their front window, and they appear willing to take the necessary steps to preserve open space.”

From his surveys and research, Gibbons created a comprehensive map that shows areas of varying levels of conservation priorities. Some areas need to be preserved because of their importance as community watersheds, some lands need to be preserved because they host endangered animal species, and some lands need to be preserved because they are valued for recreation by residents.

The study team also addressed public health, welfare and safety issues, including working landscapes along the Wasatch Front.

Conceptual Open Space LegendThe students devised what they call the Conceptual Open Space Model. This model shows how to classify land by its development potential and its conservation value.

By referring to this model, a community can decide what lands are appropriate for development and what land should be preserved. Marked in yellow is land with high development potential and low conservation value. That is the best land to develop at least cost, Toth says, while having low impact on important conservation areas. Marked in red are lands with high conservation value and high development pressure. These areas constitute potentially high conflicts between public values and development interest. The areas marked in light green highlight lands with high conservation value and low development potential. These areas are valuable ecologically and socially and will likely be lost to future development.

To help prevent this loss, the Utah State study would assist elected officials, county governments, and planning professionals to make informed decisions with respect to those landscapes. The project would help townspeople and other stakeholders define what they want their communities to be and help them devise public policy in support of those goals.

Students “We don’t tell people what to do,” said Gibbons. “We ask them what they want and then we teach them how to get there. We have received a lot of positive feedback. It seems that they see this project as a sensible approach to what they value and how to accomplish it.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to survey and analyze all of Utah. In keeping with this goal, this year faculty and students are working with the staff of the Mountainland Association of Governments on a similar outreach project. The study area includes Summit, Wasatch and Utah counties.

For information on the “Alternative Futures for Utah’s Wasatch Front: Conservation of Open Space,” and/or the graduate program in Bioregional Planning, contact Richard Toth in the Department of Environment and Society, College of Natural Resources, at (435) 797-0694 or [email protected]

Story by student Mykel France
Photos and graphs by Mykel France, Richard Toth and Pete Gomben