SALT LAKE CITY — If the Winter Olympic Games ever come to Utah's northern mountains, officials of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest say safeguards will be needed to protect the Disneyland of the National Forest system.
The Wasatch-Cache National Forest, sprawled over 1.22 million acres of mountains just east of Salt Lake City, always ranks among the top five forests in the nation for tourism, according to forest spokesman Barry Wirth.
"It's our Disneyland. It's one of the top destination forests in the country," Wirth said.
The Wasatch Mountains, from just south of Salt Lake City to the Utah-Idaho state line, are jammed with campers and fishermen during the summer, with hunters in the fall, and with skiers and snowmobilers during the winter.
Since Alta Ski Resort opened 50 years ago, Utah's lofty mountains and more than 500 inches of snow annually have attracted skiers from throughout the world. And supporters of Salt Lake City's bid to stage a Winter Olympics believe the Games would further boost tourism.
The Games supporters have lost out for the 1992 Winter Olympics, but they plan to make another bid for the 1996 Games. And that has Wasatch-Cache National Forest officials worried.
"If the International Winter Games are awarded to Salt Lake City, some Olympic events are proposed on the National Forest and may cause significant environmental and social impacts," the service said in its management plan for the area just released this month.
The service said an environmental assessment would be needed to determine if two of the major canyons--Big and Little Cottonwood canyons--could handle massive crowds expected to seek access to the alpine events.
The federal agency said it "must assure that full consideration is given to staging the alpine events at Park City and Snow Basin (ski resorts), rather than in the more sensitive Cottonwood canyons."
Alta and Snowbird ski resorts are near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, a narrow dead-end canyon on National Forest lands southeast of Salt Lake City. Park City Ski Resort is on private land east of Salt Lake City, while Snow Basin is in the Wasatch-Cache, but in a less sensitive area than Alta or Snowbird.
Wirth said the Forest Service isn't opposed to the staging of some Olympic events on lands it administers, "but from our viewpoint we have to look at all the options."
He said the service has to protect its resources from damage and should participate in planning and administration of the Winter Games to ensure the interests of the forest and the public are protected.
"We don't cut a lot of trees in the Wasatch-Cache, but when it comes to recreation we're one of the most heavily used forests in the nation, right up there with the forests outside Los Angeles and in the Colorado Rockies," Wirth said.
The Wasatch-Cache led the nation with 6.7 million recreation user days in 1981, and has been in the top five forests every year, Wirth said. A user day is one person on the national forest for 12 hours, or two people for six hours, or similar combinations.
Skiing has become such a major Utah industry and a major recreational use of Forest Service lands that the agency has plans to let three ski resorts -- Snow Basin, Beaver Mountain and Park West -- expand into forest lands.
It is also studying proposed expansion projects at Snowbird and Solitude.
"Downhill skiing is an important industry in Utah, contributing $326 million to the state's economy in 1984," the Forest Service management report said, adding that "the demand for downhill skiing is expected to double by the year 2010."
And supporters of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics believe staging the Games in 1996 or another year would dramatically increase business at all the mountain resorts.
But the Forest Service said it's "capability to meet skier demand is limited unless significant overcrowding is considered acceptable."
Wirth said the service also must provide other winter recreation opportunities that could limit the state's capability to provide more and more space for downhill skiers.
"We're a long way from a final decision," Wirth said. "We have a management plan, but it will be at least 1988 before we'll have completed studies on how many people the sensitive canyons can handle," which could limit the growth of Alta and Snowbird.