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The City Journals

Cottonwood Canyons get more visitors than Zion or Yellowstone: And this local nonprofit works to protect them

Feb 13, 2020 02:31PM ● By Josh Wood

The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation team includes experts in botany, trail maintenance and community engagement. (Photo courtesy of the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

The Cottonwood Canyons supply the Salt Lake Valley with over 60 percent of its drinking water. A group of five people lead an effort to protect them. The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation works to improve the environments of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons as well as Millcreek Canyon. The organization has spent the past 20 years improving trails, removing invasive weeks and educating the public about the importance of protecting the vital natural environments right in the Salt Lake Valley’s backyard.

“We consider ourselves workers,” said Cottonwood Canyons Foundation (CCF) Executive Director Serena Anderson. “We’re nonpolitical. We show up after policy decisions have been made and take care of the land.”

With just five full-time staff members, the local nonprofit helps supplement the United States Forest Service’s work in the area. Anderson and her team split their time between teaching kids and other members of the public about the canyons’ delicate environment and working in the canyons to improve them.

In addition to providing the majority of the valley’s drinking water, the Cottonwood Canyons also serve as a major recreation area. In fact, 5 million people use the canyons each year, according to Anderson. “That’s more than Yellowstone or Zion,” she said. “It’s our job to teach people to be responsible recreators.” 

Backed by an army of volunteers

The efforts of the small staff of CCF are supported by hundreds of volunteers. The organization relies on over 300 regular volunteers who provide much of the labor needed for the largescale work of improving the canyons. On top of that, as many as 1,500 other people volunteer for one-time projects each year. Volunteers help take care of the forest while gaining knowledge of the environment they can share with others.

One of CCF’s regular volunteers is Bob Dunn, an old friend of Anderson’s. “I met Serena when she was 8 years old at the Boys and Girls Club,” Dunn said. “She was a leader then too.”

After moving back to the Salt Lake Valley from California five years ago, Anderson was drawn to the canyons. “I absolutely fell in love with the mountains,” she said. “I had a chance to come back, and I heard about this organization and I was thrilled about it.”

Anderson brought her experience as a nonprofit leader and became the executive director of the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation in 2016. She asked her old friend Dunn to get involved. She now counts him as one of its regular volunteers.

“I was just blown away,” Dunn said. “They have five staff members that work in the Cottonwood Canyons. They work on trails, education, invasive weeds. The weeds smother other plants and cause erosion. People don’t realize how important that work is.”

The CCF weed team works with the Forest Service to track and map levels of invasive weeds in the tri-canyon area. Teams of volunteers led by CCF staff head up the canyons to remove the invasive plants before they can do more damage. In addition to crowding out native plants and making the soil more vulnerable to erosion, invasive weeds also increase fire danger and threaten the vital drinking water provided by the canyons.

Protecting the forest

The work done by CCF provides a critical stopgap for an underfunded and overextended Forest Service. The Forest Service expends a lot of its resources fighting fires. Its budget allocation is determined by acreage rather than usage, so a small but busy area like the Cottonwood Canyons gets less funding than larger forests that might have fewer visitors. On top of that, the agency’s budget for the area is now just 60% of what it was 20 years ago, according to Anderson. While the need for services have increased with more visitors and a growing nearby population, funding to address it has plummeted.

“In my mind this is critical and people need to know about it,” Dunn said. “They all have college degrees. Their work is state of the art, and it’s way over my head what they do. They also deal with cougars, snakes, bears and moose when they work in the canyons. It’s incredible.”

The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation’s focus on trail restoration and construction helps to increase access to the canyons while also protecting them. As they make sure trails stay in good condition for people to use, CCF also educates people about the damage off-trail activity does to the native landscape.

“I have learned a lot about protecting the canyons myself since interviewing for this job,” Anderson said. “I learned that I shouldn’t pick the flowers, that doing that damages the habitat.”

Teaching stewardship of the nearby environment

The group’s education programs include bringing school children up the canyons to explore and learn. Whether exploring trails and learning at the Silver Lake visitor center in the warmer months or snowshoeing Little Cottonwood Canyon, youth programs teach Salt Lake Valley kids about the importance of the canyons.

To help more kids participate in programs, bus scholarships and donated snow clothes are available to kids in Title I schools.

The CCF team gets creative with their educational efforts. During ski season, staff and volunteers will ride up the ski lifts with lone skiers and talk with them about the canyons. They then host educational events in the resort areas.

“We’re considered an urban forest,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of our backyard, and people need to know what it means to be in a watershed.”

What’s next for the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation? Growing the organization’s capacity to meet increasing need for its services is a top priority. “We are working very hard to get a second trails crew and another weed crew,” Anderson said. “We are touching 30–40% of the need in the canyons. We’re trying to get to the backlog of need in the canyons.”

The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation offers a busy schedule of activities throughout the year. Volunteers can help with trail maintenance or invasive weed suppression, or they can attend educational and celebratory events like their Wasatch wildflower tours in July. More information can be found on their website, www.cottonwoodcanyons.org.

The organization’s staff and volunteers make sure their events combine education with action. They recently received an award for removing graffiti in Little Cottonwood Canyon and worked with local law enforcement to address the issue.

For Anderson and her team, stewardship and education go hand-in-hand. “I love working the registration table at events and checking people in,” Anderson said. “Then I ask them what they learned on the way out. I say, ‘so are you going to pick the flowers in the canyons?’ and they say, ‘oh no.’ Then they list the reasons why they shouldn’t.”