We might have stopped our mountain bike ride above Deer Valley due to fatigue. However, I seriously doubt that the word “tired” resides in the vocabulary of either professional rider Eric Porter or Weston Deutschlander, a guide with Utah-based Inspired Summit Adventures and White Pine Touring. No, it was the stunning high alpine views that brought us to a halt.
Porter and Deutschlander looked out at the area known as Bonanza Flats the way a child regards a favorite piece of playground apparatus. They smiled. Their eyes twinkled, and they recalled some of the fun they’ve had in this unspoiled area we were viewing. And, fortunately, Bonanaza Flats will remain more than fond memories.
When it comes to conservation and public lands in the Beehive State, the news has not been good. In 2012, the Utah legislature passed a bill claiming that 31.2 million acres of federal land belonged to the state, which would manage it with a focus on extractive industries and sell off parcels to private owners. The lawmakers and Governor Gary Herbert also asked President Trump to rescind the designation of the 1.3-million aces Bears Ears National Monument and shrink the 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante for coal mining.
Considering that history, the preservation of Bonanza Flats is a welcome breath of fresh air in Utah—and it was the result of local action. A combination of communities, local governments, businesses, individuals and organizations rallied to raise $38 million to save 1,350 acres of private land here. Developers were eyeballing the pristine high mountain property in Wasatch County, which abuts fast-growing Summit and Salt Lake counties, as a potential gated, luxury residential community. That move would have blocked public access and recreational use. It would have, as those who protest against wilderness and public lands like to say, locked it away forever.
Private Land Goes Public
Bonanza Flats had been owned by United Park City Mines before the Talisker Corporation purchased it in with plans for a resort. Talisker went bankrupt in 2016, however, and Wells Fargo foreclosed on the property. A number of potential purchasers began to vie to acquire the beautiful, wild parcel, which had also once been proposed as the home of a golf course. Locals wanted none of it and banded together to try to stop development on Bonanza Flats
There was one big problem: Bonanza was indeed private land, and quite valuable. The $38 million price tag posed a huge hurdle to public acquisition. Utah Public Lands and the Town of Park City pushed to raise the funds, but they couldn’t pull it together in time for the March 2017 deadline. The seller granted a three-month extension, however, and the race to save Bonanza was on.
Even before the deal solidified, Park City voters anted up $25 million for acquisition by overwhelmingly approving a property tax bond in November 2016. Park City Council approved three separate items to push the matter through, two in relation to the financial contribution and another enlisting Utah Open Lands, a not-for-profit, to enforce a conservation easement to preserve Bonanza Flats as undeveloped.
It took a lot of behind-the-scenes finagling and negotiations by the Park City Council in order to buy the land in such a short window of time. At first, it looked as if they were going to be able to make the November deadline, but then a sudden outside offer from a private developer blindsided Park City’s efforts. The city almost gave up. However, the Park City Council chose to be ready just in case the community was able to rally and raise the purchase money.
The community mobilized: Individuals, recreational groups, artists, athletes, local and national non-profits, foundations and businesses pulled together from Summit, Wasatch and Salt Lake Counties to raise the additional $13 million needed to purchase the property. It took five months of work and a coalition of 11 non-profits, including land trusts, trail advocates, backcountry groups and mountain biking crews to do it, but losing the wild and scenic property in perpetuity, forfeiting it as a playground for the rich, like so many cloistered communities in Idaho and Wyoming, was not an option to these folks.
“It was a no brainer for most of us. Although the property is in Wasatch County, the impacts would have been mostly in Park City,” said local Rhonda Sideris, explaining that, had the property been developed, the entrance and exit for owners would have gone through Deer Valley. “The wildlife alone was a big reason for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the moose and deer in my yard on a daily basis. But I hate seeing them on the side of the road. Development has driven them lower and lower.”
Space to Play
Deutschlander, a guide who depends on open space for a living, sees great value in an undeveloped Bonanza Flats, which has been open to recreational use. “This is where I did my first ski tour with my wife. It’s where I proposed to her. It’s where we still do our traditional first ski tour of the season. It’s where, with just 20-minutes worth of driving, you can be up nearly 3,000 feet, and away from it all,” he says. “I am so thankful that my daughter will grow up having access to the same mountains, streams and lakes that I did, and that they will remain largely unchanged.”
For pro rider Porter, the Bonanza Flats purchase was a “dream that came true, one that no one knew was even possible. For years, we have ridden around this area and we always made comments like ‘better enjoy it while we have it.’ We knew the land was primarily owned by a real estate development company, and there were always rumors of a golf course going in, or who knows what else. No trespassing signs started to pop up in areas where we would ski tour or go off-trail adventuring on foot. In my experience, once a development company gets ahold of a place, that’s the end of it.”
Porter notes that even though Bonanza Flats isn’t a huge piece of land, it’s in the alpine and in the middle of a triangle between Salt Lake valley, Park City, and Heber Valley, so he can meet friends from these other areas in the middle “where we can all ride or ski together in the backcountry. I’m so excited to see the trail connections come together in the newly protected land. It will finally be the singletrack connection between the SLC, Park City, and Heber Valley riding areas. Wasatch Trail Alliance and Mountain Trails Foundation will be working together to make this dream become a reality!”
The difference proved to be those same people who skied and rambled on the land.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the entire community come together to make something happen,” says Porter. “We didn’t just rely on a tax bond or wait for some rich guy to pony up all of the money, although that was a part of it. Every single person I know put in money to make this purchase happen, even if it was only $20, so that they could be a part of protecting this awesome piece of land.”
The fundraising effort is a testament to Utah’s unheralded part of passion for preservation and recreation, beyond it’s legislature. It was through auctions, bake sales, art sales, concerts, beer bashes, rides, running races, that the region was able to pull it all together. A night at Montage in Deer Valley raised $1.1 million. Park City’s High West Distillery, Summit Sotheby’s kicked in and there was a birthday party at the State Room where the celebrant asked for donations in lieu of birthday presents. Artist Bridgette Meinhold donated her own paintings to raise $22,000 in a single evening. Kodiak Cakes held breakfasts, partnering with the Park City Trails Series, Skullcandy, Traeger and other local business to pledge $10,000. Kuhl, the Utah clothing company, committed $25,000. An anonymous donor also pledged over $300,000 at the start of the campaign.
The $13 million gap finally closed when the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation contributed $165,000 to the cause. The Eccles are well-known area philanthropists. Other funds came in when Salt Lake County joined Salt Lake City Public Utilities, Wasatch County, Metropolitan Water District, and others, to contribute $1.5 million to the cause.
Not every group in Utah supported the purchase, however. Americans for Prosperity Utah protested against Salt Lake County’s funding toward a purchase of land that was in another county. It clamed the effort pulled funding away from higher, more local priorities and that the massive cost of Bonanza Flats presented too heavy a burden to taxpayers.
Now under a conservation easement, the parcel remains in private ownership while Utah Open Lands controls the terms of the agreement, and does so in perpetuity. The landowner is allowed to live on and use the property in a non-destructive manner and may also sell it or pass it on to the next generation, but the easement restricts the development rights of the property, greatly reducing its market value. That, in turn, lowers the property and estate taxes. This is a good deal all around: As additional tax benefits, conservation easements offer donors charitable deductions and corresponding income tax reductions.
Park City and Utah Open Lands continue to study the area and gather data in preparing to set policies and regulate the new acquisition. Since Bonanza Flats operates under the conservation easement, city hall will be able to draft a governing document that controls what may and may not occur on the property. The study relies on a resident survey poll asking what activities they find appropriate for Bonanza Flats. Included among the activities are hiking, trail running, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, all of which have been regular pursuits on the land. Other possible activities included on the survey are camping, hunting, driving motor vehicles, holding group events, and horseback riding.
And so, Bonanza Flats, the dazzling piece of open land at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, saddled between Guardsman Pass, Peak 10,420, and the Park City ridgeline, has been saved. Recreational users can breathe a sigh of relief and know that this home to the Wasatch Crest Trail, Lacawaxen and Bloods Lakes, running, hiking, and backcountry skiing trails and incredible wildlife will not be gated off and flattened for the back nine. And know that conservation in Utah is possible.