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Utah Open Lands

Protecting Our Access to the Outdoors

For almost 30 years, one Utah organization has been working hard to safeguard what many of us love the most: the outdoors. From a historic Park City dairy farm to the high plateaus of Thorley Ranch near Zion, Utah Open Lands endeavors to protect and preserve some of our state’s most well-known places, plus many more.

Backcountry recently spoke to Executive Director Wendy Fisher about Utah Open Lands’ history, current work, and how it will continue to protect our most precious outdoor spaces for generations to come.

Ask five people about the most important aspect of protecting land and you’ll likely get five different answers. To some, it’s a matter of strict conservation. To others, it’s all about responsible access. But for Wendy Fisher and Utah Open Lands, protecting the lands we love comes down to one thing: people. 

“All of Utah’s outdoor spaces—the trails, parks, and open plains—make us better people,” explains Wendy. “And that’s what our projects are fundamentally about: the broader value that the outdoors adds to our daily lives, and the need to respect and protect it.” 

Utah Open Lands works to protect every type of land imaginable, and reaches into all corners of the state. It has preserved critical migratory land for wintering elk, and safeguarded ancient pastures from development inside Park City’s limits. In fact, since it started in 1990, Utah Open Lands has saved more than 60,000 acres of land, worth more than $50 million.

While there are many benefits to preserving open space, some of the direct beneficiaries are Utah residents. Wendy explains, “Time spent in nature impacts our wellbeing, and that’s why it’s so important that we protect our landscapes. At 5pm, people who live in cities can put on their running shoes and be in the wilderness within 10 minutes. That’s huge—and worth protecting.”

The primary means employed by Utah Open Lands to protect open spaces is through relationship building. Whether that’s with the farmer who owns the land, or the communities that use it, the organization shows others the benefits of conservation—even when those benefits might not be immediately obvious.

Unfortunately, the income and estate tax incentives for landowners who conserve their land are often eclipsed by the financial rewards from developers. So, when a landowner chooses preservation over profit, Wendy knows she’s working with people who understand her mission. “Choosing to leave a legacy of open land is inspiring,” says Wendy. “If landowners conserve their land instead of selling it for development, it’s because they see the importance of that land, and they want to preserve it for the next generation.”

While the wellbeing of people now and in the future may be one of the main driving forces behind Utah Open Lands’ work, it’s also motivated by the positive impacts on jobs, communities, and businesses. 

These benefits are well-evidenced. In 2016, the National Park Service reported more than 12 million non-local visits to Utah’s parks, resulting in $844.2 million of spending. From cross-country skiing to kayaking, Utah is an outdoor recreation destination, and trends suggest that these figures will only increase. 

“Open spaces are an economic draw,” says Wendy. “It’s why families choose to live here and why tourists want to visit.” It’s also why many businesses choose to relocate here, with scenic beauty and recreational opportunity ranking among the top reasons for companies moving their operations to Utah. When you consider that outdoor recreation brings $12.3 billion to the state’s economy and employs 110,000 individuals, it becomes even easier to demonstrate the far-reaching impact of protected open space.

Understandably, Utah’s reputation as an outdoor state means many of the outdoor industry’s biggest names are headquartered here—including Backcountry, Black Diamond, Atomic, Petzl, and more. However, as Wendy explains, if the lands responsible for that reputation were threatened, their prospects could look very different: “The best way to experience outdoor products is on an outdoor adventure. But if we don’t have those places, then you’ll soon find yourself in a rock climbing gym instead of scaling Castleton Tower.”

The work of Utah Open Lands might seem immediate—protecting the spaces we all use for recreation—but its focus also reaches far into the future, preserving land for generations to come. Their recent success in protecting Bonanza Flats is the perfect example.

A 1,300-acre backcountry paradise, Bonanza Flats is often referred to as the heart of the Wasatch, sitting at the intersection of Salt Lake, Wasatch, and Summit counties. When a 2017 land sale threatened this cherished area with development, a fundraising effort led by Utah Open Lands raised close to $13 million, resulting in the purchase and ultimate protection of this forest-rich wilderness. 

“This is a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged since Park City was founded in 1869,” explains Wendy. “What an amazing legacy to leave for future generations… In some respects, we’re doing the most conservative thing you could possibly do—saving something for the next generation.”

Once again, Utah Open Lands’ approach comes back to people. It makes a promise to people that important spaces will be protected—whether that’s from today’s threats of Monument repeal, or tomorrow’s threats of urban development.  

But while Utah Open Lands works for people, it also needs the help of people to do its work. “The promise that we make to the community at the time we protect a stretch of land is a promise to the next generation,” says Wendy. “What that means is, forever, we have to steward this landscape. And the only way that we can do a good job of stewarding these places where we get out into nature is if everybody becomes one of those good stewards.”

To find out more about Utah Open Lands, its vital work, and how you can get involved, visit utahopenlands.org.