Protecting the Wasatch


Challenges & Tips for Finding a Sustainable Balance

The mountains of Utah are known throughout the world for their abundant snowfall, breathtaking landscapes, and limitless opportunities for recreation. But the beauty of Utah is bringing new residents in droves, making it the fastest growing state and filling the Salt Lake Valley with continual urban expansion. But all this growth means negative effects on Utah’s air and water, threatening quality and safety for our residents.

With this in mind, we investigated the Wasatch’s main environmental concerns: our primary watersheds, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, and the inversions produced by the Salt Lake Valley’s topography, which is perfectly molded to trap smog and pollutants.

Each aspect of the ecosystem is closely intertwined with the others, so we must protect the health of each to enable the whole to function. Here we delve into the effects of humans on these ecosystems, and what we can do to lessen our impact and protect this pristine playground for generations to come.

The Wasatch’s Major Environmental Concerns

Water Quality
“When a snowflake leaves Snowbird and goes into Little Cottonwood Creek, it’s 24 hours before it’s processed by the metropolitan water district and ends up in our taps,” says Hilary Arens, director of sustainability and water resources at Snowbird, “It’s really important that what we’re doing at Snowbird is protective of human and environmental health because it’s what we’re drinking in 24 hours.”

Arens, formerly the watershed coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Quality, breaks down the importance of responsible winter recreation in Utah’s watersheds. The majority of water quality issues, however, are multifaceted. Without a doubt, water is precious, and clean water is vital to a healthy lifestyle.

Air Quality
Feeling the smog blues lately? One predominant environmental issue on the Wasatch Front is the regular threat to air quality caused by winter inversions and pollution. The unique topography of the Salt Lake Valley, with the Wasatch Range to the East and Oquirrh Mountains to the West, generates a phenomena called ‘inversions,’ where cold temperatures with little or no breeze causes a dense layer of cold air to become trapped under a layer of warmer air between the mountain ranges.

The warmer air acts like a lid trapping pollutants near the valley floor, and the longer the inversion lasts, the more pollutants become trapped. During an inversion, chemicals bond to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air and can then pass through the lungs’ filters, entering the bloodstream, where they can contribute to headaches, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and bronchitis, as well as premature death from heart ailments, lung disease, and cancer.

While Utah’s geography will always cause inversions, we can reduce the frequency and severity by reducing emissions. The growing Salt Lake Valley produces copious amounts of pollution from vehicle transit, home, and building energy emissions.

Skiing & Air Quality
The ski industry is nestled at an interesting intersection on air quality. Passion and recreation are based around the natural environment, but the business of skiing currently produces significant emissions to make it possible for the masses.

Stepping up to face this reality, the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) is committed to improving ski areas environmental performances across the country. Its Sustainable Slopes program, Climate Challenge program, The Green Room, and the Golden Eagle Award provide funding, education, and support for resorts.
At Utah resorts, Deer Valley has switched to LED lighting and uses high-efficiency snowmaking guns while Sundance offsets all its energy use by purchasing renewable energy credits and focusing on recycling. You can take charge of your own ski emissions by using public transit versus driving individually, refusing to idle your car, and carpooling to ski in Utah’s mountains.

Ecology from Soil to Wildlife
As outdoor recreation enthusiasts, it’s important to learn about the Wasatch ecosystem, so we can continue to have the beautiful landscape we love to explore. Organizations such as Alta Ski Area’s Alta Environmental Center are actively working to preserve the canyon’s unique ecosystem and reduce the ski area’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020.

One way is leading numerous local restoration efforts to improve damaged lands with native vegetation. This involves monitoring surveys, planting 1500 trees and 3-5,000 plants each year, which help provide nutrients and stabilize the soil. The public can even join in and help plant vegetation on designated days during the summer. Find volunteer dates on the Alta Sustainability Events community calendar at

Author Amy David skiing the Wasatch jumping off a cliff.

Author Amy David skiing the Wasatch.

10 Ways You Can Help
You can make a difference in protecting the Wasatch by making these little changes each day. Here’s a quick list of action items:

1) Educate yourself. Knowledge is power! The best way to take action is to learn first. is a reliable scientific source to get the straight story on climate.

2) Drive less. Reduce carbon emissions by swapping your drive with riding a bike, taking public transit, and carpooling. When skiing, use Snowbird’s recently launched RIDE (Reducing Individual Driving for the Environment) mobile app to connect with carpoolers, track your public transit bus use, and get rewarded with prizes.

3) Reduce personal waste. Create habits of taking reusable water bottles, coffee cups and bags for daily use. Purchase fewer material goods with excessive packaging. While recycling exists, it’s best to minimize waste overall.

4) Turn down the heat. Properly insulate your house, reduce the temperature in your home a few degrees in winter to save energy, and begin the transition to renewable energy sources. For an affordable solution, choose Vivint Solar’s home solar panels to create your own power.

5) Change lightbulbs. Inefficient light bulbs use more energy, which means increased CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. New LED bulbs reduce carbon output and last up to 10 years.

6) Write your Congress members. Let Congress know you care by attending meetings and advocating for positive policy change.

7) Eat local. Purchase and consume food as locally sourced as possible to reduce emissions from food shipment. Simply Google “SLC farm co-op” to learn about several local farms and local programs with accessible food. There are also many community gardens in the city where you can volunteer a certain amount of work time in exchange for fresh produce.

8) Practice Leave No Trace. Learn to be a good steward of the outdoors by practicing ethics found at when recreating outdoors.

9) Reduce or off-set your air travel. Did you know that air travel is one of the largest contributors to individual’s carbon footprints? If you love to travel saying no to flying is out. So at the very least, opt to offset your carbon emissions by participating in airline programs offering it.

10) Get your hands dirty. The public is always invited to participate in the tree salvage and restoration projects. TreeUtah’s EcoGarden is a community resource along the Jordan River in Rose Park that utilizes volunteers for projects like watering, weeding, mulching, composting, and picking up trash. Get involved by emailing

Everyone can use their own personal influence to impact the world around them. Use our resource guide at to learn about sustainability in the Wasatch and how to get involved.


About Author

Amy David is an outdoor sports athlete and content producer. She grew up in the mountains of Wyoming and spends the majority of her time guiding wilderness trips, producing outdoor-themed media, and seeking adrenaline rushes on skis. With a degree in the Psychology of Communication and minor in Outdoor Education and Leadership, her work fuses the outdoor and entertainment industries. Keep up with her adventures at @AmyJaneDavid.

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