Utahns are fortunate they can take refuge in the great outdoors
This op-ed was written for and published in the Deseret News on Friday, April 10th
In this bewildering, frightening time when each of us experiences a new reality, there is a constant that gives us a unique opportunity for reprieve and relief — our access to the outdoors. As residents of Utah, unlike many other states, most of us have immediate access to a safe and vast outdoor world.
I know I am not alone in adjusting to a routine that prevents direct social contact outside my immediate household. Like most of us, I have family and friends experiencing the horrific effects of COVID-19, and I am learning new ways to enjoy indoor activities and connect with colleagues,
loved ones, and friends. Yet one routine I have been lucky to maintain is escaping into our great outdoors. Every day, I walk or ride my bike. My wife and I sometimes take long walks along the Jordan River Parkway, or saunter through the city, or make the short drive into our Wasatch Mountains.
Luckily for Utahns, these activities can be enjoyed by hundreds, even thousands of people while maintaining our social distance. For residents of New York or Los Angeles — and so many other dense cities around the world — outdoor activities like these are off-limits because of the lack of spaces to safely accommodate people. But here in Utah, even in our most densely populated communities, we can safely enjoy the outdoors while following mandatory distancing requirements.
It’s not surprising that so many others are doing the same: accessing the mountains, the sidewalks and trails, local parks and waterways — with minimal driving and maintaining 6 feet of distance. The Cottonwood Canyons seem as busy as a normal summer day, even though the resorts are closed and the snow for backcountry skiing is dissipating. The Jordan River trail is drawing a constant stream of people — from families with strollers, to the elderly, to serious road-riders. Hikers, dog walkers, mountain bikers and runners are flocking to the foothills adjacent to their communities.
This COVID-19 crisis has deepened my appreciation for where we live, our community spirit and our common love for outdoor experiences. I am also keenly aware that not all Utahns have equal access to the outdoors. During my terms as Salt Lake City mayor, I regularly visited school classrooms and almost always asked students how many of them had been in the Wasatch Mountains. The difference in their responses was revealing: most students on Salt Lake City’s east side raised their hands, while on the west side only a few hands went up. Those visits — and the clear differences in outdoor access that exist among school children — led to the “SLC Kids Explore” program, now run by Tracy Aviary to encourage underserved youth to connect with nature in direct and meaningful ways.
In these past several crazy weeks, I’ve watched a squirrel play tag with a magpie. I discovered a new cave in the foothills. I have reveled in the splendor of our snow-capped mountain peaks, and am finding comfort in the greening and flowering of springtime in the valley. I’ve realized the salve of distraction from the drumbeat of bad news.
From conversations with many people along the way, and in my current role as director of the Central Wasatch Commission, or CWC, I know that my personal experience is widely shared by many Utahns, and by elected leaders along the Wasatch Front and Back. CWC is the governmental entity tasked with carrying out projects initiated during the Mountain Accord process — a consensus agreement among a broad range of stakeholders to protect and better manage our precious Wasatch Mountains and find transportation solutions.
The 10 local-elected officials who comprise the commission understand how deeply we value and rely on this resource for our watershed, and physical and mental well-being. They dedicate countless hours to navigating the many challenges we face in protecting it, engaging the public and ensuring that the remarkable mountains in our backyard continue to serve, inspire and heal future generations of Utahns and visitors.
Whether it’s pursuing activities in our Wasatch Mountains, walks around neighborhoods, or visiting local parks or open spaces where you turn for exercise, perspective and distraction from current events, I hope everyone will find time during this spring season of light and renewal to enjoy our great outdoors safely.
Ralph Becker is the executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission and former Salt Lake City Mayor, 2008-2015.