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Open Letter to City and County Officials

An open letter to Salt Lake City and County officials,

announcing the publication of our proposal

To:  Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker
       Salt Lake City Council and staff
       Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams
       Salt Lake County Council and staff
From:  Coalition for Nature in the City
As most of you will remember, during his 2007 mayoral election campaign then-candidate, now-Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker ran on a campaign platform called "Blueprint for a Green City".  The many environmental policy objectives identified in the "Blueprint" included an inspiring call to action to preserve and protect not merely open space along the Jordan River corridor, but also to protect natural areas "for wildlife" and for ecological integrity.

The following excerpts from the mayor's "Blueprint for a Green City" have informed and inspired the plan we are submitting to the mayor today:

"Preserve and acquire open space

"Without a Big Picture plan for preserving and acquiring our precious open spaces, our green spaces will 'suffer death by a thousand cuts' as they are slowly nibbled away. A long-range plan for both retaining our current open spaces and for acquiring additional ones is critical to our health and quality of life from both a recreational and an ecological standpoint." 

"I will begin a comprehensive open-space planning effort for Salt Lake City.

This plan will include proposals to create green infrastructure with interconnected natural and urbanized open spaces that are protected places for people as well as for wildlife"


   " I will develop a strong open-space acquisition program

This will use conservation easements and other conservation techniques to fund greenways and open-space connections between the Great Salt Lake, downtown, neighborhoods, business districts, and the foothills."

Mayor Becker reaffirmed his commitment to a comprehensive masterplan for preservation and restoration of natural values on the Jordan River in his 2008 State of the City Address:

“I will ramp up action on…restoration of the river corridor…  We need to think long-term about making the Jordan River watershed a model for ecological restoration.  Volunteers have flooded my office and I’m excited to leverage our City resources with actions by other communities along the Jordan River.”

Although we are eight years late in responding to the mayor's call to action, we are pleased to  offer the attached executive summary and 34-page booklet describing a comprehensive, coherent master plan to make the Jordan River corridor within our city, a model, in the mayor's words, for ecological restoration, in response to the mayor's recent call for public input about open space, parks and trails.   Our plan would preserve open space, green infrastructure, and protected places for wildlife as well as people, within a system of 17 new "nature parks" running continuously across Salt Lake City along the Jordan River corridor, and comprising a total of about 800 acres of land.  It would would also develop crucial pedestrian and bike trail connections both along the river and between it and the rest of the city.

Primary objectives of the plan
The foremost objective of our plan is to protect as "nature parks" four of the largest blocks of open space remaining along the river in the city:  the Rose Park, Glendale, and Par 3 golf courses, and a portion of the former Jordan River State Park along the Jordan River at about 2800 North.  These lands would be converted with removal of non-native plants and replacement with native plants, construction of river-adjacent wetlands ponds and marshes where ground water is near the surface, or river or surface runoff water available.   The largest available blocks of open space on the river are of special importance because of the well understood disproportionate importance of wildlife habitat area to biodiversity.   (Larger blocks of land provide sufficient habitat for larger populations of animals which in turn are more stable due to genetic diversity.)
The plan's second most important objective is to provide connectivity for wildlife and people between these large "biodiversity anchor" nature parks, by removing non-native plants, restoring native plants, creating new river-adjacent wetlands ponds wherever possible (as has recently been done by Salt Lake City in a small new nature park at 900 South), and restoring water quality and fisheries both by re-contouring stream banks (wherever possible without increased flood risk) to minimize soil erosion directly into the river, and by building "sediment-trap" bioswales at major tributary stream confluences and storm water outfalls, which will remove sediment and many toxic materials washing into the river from our valley's many roofs, streets, and parking lots.
Additional components:  green infrastructure for people as well as wildlife.

In addition to the primary objectives identified above, our plan would also make the river corridor a more attractive place for city residents to explore and enjoy by means of the following additional components:

  • Full restoration of the industrial blight area between 200 South and North Temple through--
    • Completion of the  Jordan River Parkway trail
    • widening of the setback to the edge of industrial facilities (power plant, power station, factories, railroad switch yard, etc.) in keeping with expanding beyond requirement of the city's setback ordinance
    • Removal of non-native plants and restoration with healthy, diverse communities of native plants
    • Protection of trees from beaver predation
    • "daylighting" of City Creek (removal of stream flow from a pipe buried under North Temple into a new above-ground stream channel), with a landscaping to a minimum setback of 100 feet, and beyond, on either side of the newly daylighted stream, with native plants
    • possible restoration of small fisheries both at the head and foot of the new stream channel
    • Restoration of the historic Fisher Mansion
  • Development of community "gateways" to the river from the city at proposed new interpretive and community center at the existing Fisher Mansion, Par 3, Rose Park, and Glendale golf course club houses;
  • Placement of urban agriculture (urban farms, community gardens, permaculture gardens and/or food forests) to serve as gateways to the river from the city, to provide gardening and social opportunities for residents who do not have space for gardens of their own, to provide food security for lower income residents who may not yet have adequate English language skills to find work, and to serve as buffers between nature and busy city streets, and
  • Use of the historic Fisher Mansion to serve as a major gateway and access point to the river from the city at a crucial east-west north-south bike trail nexus,  with facilities for both pedestrians, boaters, and bikers, plus an oral history archive and community gathering place;
  • Closure of critical missing links in Salt Lake City's primary off-street commuter biking system both along a north-south axis (the Jordan Parkway trail) and multiple east-west connector routes (a new bike trail running east-west from downtown to the Jordan River at about South Temple, and potential additional east-west bike commuter network connections at 900 South, 1300 South, 1700 South, and/or 2100 South.)

Benefits of the proposal

The most important benefit of this proposal is to preserve and protect two very important natural assets of our city:  1.) the ecological vitality of its only river, and 2.) a wildlife movement corridor that lies directly along the axis of not one but two overlapping transcontinental migratory bird flyways.   Anyone who has ever marveled at the power and beauty of flying birds or flowing water instinctually understands the value of protecting these assets, both for their own intrinsic value and for the pleasure humans derive from the archetypal familiarity and sheer beauty of the natural world.

There are, however, many additional benefits of our plan:

1.)   Enhanced outdoor recreation opportunities for city residents.  This plan will greatly increase the quality of the outdoor recreational experience for all persons using the proposed 17 new nature parks along the length of the river through the city.   The entire river corridor will be both more beautiful, more inviting, and more interesting because of the proposed reestablishment of healthy communities of native plants and animals, wetlands ponds, cleaner river water, and other features of the plan.
2.)  Fiscal stabilization and revitalization of the municipal golf system, with reduced tax burden for city residents.

Our proposal to close and repurpose two golf courses along the river (in addition to the one small golf course recently closed)  would immediately reduce the deficits that the golf enterprise fund has been running, which now amount to about $1.3 million per year, by appropriately concentrating the fund's financial resources, and maintenance budget, upon the much better used, profitable east side golf courses, while removing the underutilized and unprofitable west side golf courses from the system.   This will allow a concentration of resources where they are needed which will ultimately allow for enhancement of the system.
Meanwhile expenditures for conversion of golf course land to other recreational use will be minimized, because the cost of converting golf courses into nature parks is less than one tenth the cost of converting them into sports parks, with soccer fields, tennis courts, water parks, etc, and the long-term maintenance costs of nature parks and wildlife habitat are but a fraction of those for any other form of land use.
3.)  Outdoor classrooms for our public and private schools.
Our proposal would create 17 new nature parks wherein restoration of natural ecosystem values would be under way in locations that are on average within about 1/3 of a mile of the nearest elementary or middle school (both public and private).   Thus the nature parks will provide ideal outdoor classrooms and learning laboratories where school kids can have exposure to wildlife, native plants, can learn how ecosystems work, and can learn
We believe that restoration of the ecological health of our planet will be the great work of the 21st century, and that training students to do such work will provide abundant career opportunities and job security in a very fast-growing field of environmental restoration.
Our plan would make Salt Lake City an internationally recognized showcase for urban riparian restoration master planning theory and practice.
4.)  Reservation of river and Great Salt Lake flood plain lands from future build out and flood mitigation cost transfer to federal and local taxpayers.
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina and of the Fukishima nuclear power plant disaster are clear:  do not build within the historic flood plain of potentially volatile bodies of water.  Our plan would use the river flood plain to maximum economic benefit while minimizing future flood risks by keeping expensive city infrastructure out of the Jordan River flood plain--in keeping with the repeated recommendations of no less than 40 studies of the river corridor across the past 70 years.
5.)  Return on taxpayer investment

While bonding in the amount we propose might cost each home owner up to $30 in increased property taxes on a $175,000 house, we believe that increases of about 22 percent in property values, especially on lands not yet developed--or which might be redeveloped, along the margins of the proposed greenway, would pay back the taxpayer investment in the system, while those residents living alongside the greenway would receive a disproportionately large return on investment both in the form of immediate lifestyle amenities and with increased equity value of their properties--just as countless studies have shown had happened within 600 feet of urban greenways in dozens of other cities all across the U.S. throughout the past half-century.

6.)  Economic benefits to our city, region and state
Tourism and active outdoor recreation are already the primary economic engine for the Utah economy.  Active recreation alone pours $5.8 billion per year into our economy, while providing 65,000 jobs, $300 million in annual state tax revenues, $4 billion in annual retail sales and services.   The Outdoor Retailer's two annual trade shows alone generates $40 million per year in spending by visitors in Salt Lake City.
Wildlife viewing, taken separately, engages about a million participants annually, many from out of state, while generating $1.3 billion per year in Utah.
But these are not the most important contribution of our state's world-class scenery and natural values to the economy.   Today's highly mobile, high-tech industry can locate anywhere in the world.  Innovative companies choose to locate in regions with high value lifestyle amenities for their highly trained employees.   In the fierce competition for cutting-edge, "disruptive" technology companies, protected natural open space within the heart of an urban area serves as a powerful magnet.   Companies located in cities that have an international reputation for protect their natural values, their air, water, and nature itself, have a huge competitive advantage over cities that essentially are urban industrial wastelands.
Denver and surrounding cities and communities have collectively spent $100 million to protect the Greater Denver region's South Platte river, just as we propose to protect and restore the Jordan River.  The Greenway Foundation has calculated a 10000 percent return on that investment:

“The Greenway Foundation estimates that $100 million invested in green improvements to the South Platte Watershed from the Headwaters to the Denver Metropolitan Area (Colorado) and its tributaries has facilitated more than $10 billion in residential and commercial development throughout the Denver metro area. That’s a very good return on investment. And that doesn’t even include the additional dollar value of air and water quality and public health benefits from green infrastructure.”



Source:  Environmental Protection Agency:  19 Designated Urban Waters
A whole greater than the sum of the parts
We encourage the mayor and city council to recognize that while there is benefit in a piecemeal approach that would implement just a few of our recommendations, this plan, like any ecosystem, is a coherent whole whose greatest benefits will come from a combination of all elements working together.  So for example, in the urban industrial wasteland stretch of river between 200 South and North Temple, the combined effect of all components of the plan working together would radically transform what is today one of the most polluted, least accessible and least attractive stretches of river throughout its entire length across Salt Lake Valley, into a new community asset and river gateway, literally at the western "Gateway" to our city, of extraordinary beauty and utility and vitality.
Public support for this proposal
As indicated on the last page of the attached booklet, 15 environmental, faith, wildlife advocacy and outdoor recreation organizations have endorsed our Nature in the City master plan, at launch.   However this is only the beginning of many more endorsements yet to follow, especially from local businesses.
Salt Lake City was one of a number of cities along the Jordan River which helped to fund and later endorsed the recommendations of a 2008 Blueprint Jordan River study which included an exhaustive 44-question online survey to which nearly 3,000 Salt Lake Valley residents responded.
This survey demonstrated beyond any doubt that an overwhelming percentage of the valley's population supports the preservation and restoration of a natural green corridor along the river, with restored ecosystems and wildlife habitat:

Please note the last chart in this series, taken from the Survey results as reported by Envision Utah:  valley residents prefer "natural areas for wildlife" to "sports fields or golf courses" by a ratio of 34 to 1.
Cost and sources of funding.
The attached proposal booklet provides line-item cost estimates for the various components and deliverables of our proposal, which total to about $44 million.   No estimate of this nature can be perfect;  such estimates are always works in progress as new information becomes available.  The cost summary in our booklet is backed up by a spreadsheet which provides the sources of our cost benchmarks.  We have already asked city council staff, and city open space study consultants, together with other city and county government specialists, for peer review of our cost estimates.  We welcome better intelligence about potential cost.
On page 27 of the attached booklet we identify 21 possible sources of funding for riparian restoration projects, which have been used in the past either by our own city or by other cities.
Our entire plan could easily be funded in one fell swoop out of a proposed fall 2015 "parks, open space, and trails" general obligation bond which will be necessary to provide funds for transition of golf courses that are proposed for closure.  That is our recommendation, because the proposed closure of of municipal golf courses along the Jordan River presents a one-time opportunity both for land at reasonable cost, and for funding from the general obligation bond necessary for golf course redesign for other recreational use.  If we do not reserve the golf course land immediately as part of the bond process, it will be lost forever for the use which we propose.
This is a long-term vision.  Our approach must be one of flexibility, creativity, and opportunistic, incremental initiative as funding from multiple sources becomes available over time.  We are convinced that this plan is so good that over time a many of its recommendations will be funded and implemented.
Origin of the proposal, and sources of additional information.
This proposal has been developed primarily by the Earth Restoration Network, a local nonprofit organization which specializes in restoration master planning.   However, it is the collective work of many organizations and individuals, and it stands on the shoulders of no less than 40 previous studies, reports, and initiatives across 70 years, all of which have in various ways recommended essentially the same thing:  do not build in the flood plain of the river or the Great Salt Lake, but rather, preserve and restore natural values including native plants, natural stream function, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and above all the power and beauty of nature as God and evolution has designed it over 3.5 billion years.

The organizations which have endorsed our plan, and which will do so in the future, form a defacto "Coalition for Nature in the City."   However, this coalition is informal rather than formal, it has no ownership or governance structure, and it is not authoritarian nor hierarchical.   Its leadership is by informal consensus and mainly by the individual initiative of a diverse group independent-minded individuals with common values but with differing perspectives and styles.   Our master plan is a vision for the future, not a corporation with legal obligations to shareholders.
Representatives of authorized, endorsing organizations can serve as spokespersons for this plan.  The elements of the plan will be fluid, changing with time and opportunity, essentially forever.  No one person owns the plan.  At this time the most knowledgeable persons to answer questions and provide additional information about the plan are as follows:

Overview, origin, cost estimates, and most details of the plan and the political campaign to support itRay Wheeler, Director, Earth Restoration Network, 801-355-6236, wheeler.ray@gmail.com

Affect of the plan on various city departments or programs,  former Salt Lake City council member, architect and planner Soren Simonsen, 801-706-1055, soren@communitystudio.us.
Ecological and conservation biology science theory upon which the plan is basedTy Harrison, emeritus professor of Biology, Westminister College, (801) 255-3167tyju@xmission.com,  and fisheries/wildlife biology expert and Poplar Grove community council member  Dan Potts, (801) 596-1536, Dan_Karen_Potts@msn.com
Bike trail system master   planning elementsPhil Sarnoff, executive director, Bike Utah, 801-328-5065, psarnoff@bikeutah.org
Fisher mansion restoration and community outreach componentsLes Kelen, executive director, Center for Documentary Expression and Arts, 801-355-3903, les@cdautah.org
Urban agriculture componentsAshley Patterson, Executive Director, Wasatch Community Gardens,  801-359-2658 ext.15, ashley@greenbuildingcenter.net
Proposed Jordan River Interpretive CenterTim Brown, Executive Director, Tracy Aviary, 801-596-8500, TimB@tracyaviary.org
Proposed Center for Advancement of Wildlife:  Salt Lake County Fish and Game Association board member and spokesman Dan Potts, (801) 596-1536, Dan_Karen_Potts@msn.com


Links to additional information:

Online map of the proposed nature park system

Download the Nature in the City Riparian Restoration Plan

Background on the political and financial context of the proposal

Benefits of the Proposed Park SystRufen

Successful Urban Riparian Restoration Projects in Other Cities

Previous Jordan River Studies and Reports

Blueprint Jordan River Report

Daylighting Salt Lake's City Creek: An Urban River Unentombed