Photo by Taylor Ballam

Saving Bonanza Flats

Wendy Fisher and singer Joni Mitchell agree: They don’t want to pave paradise and put up parking lots. That’s why Fisher, the executive director of the conservation group Utah Open Lands, spent last year fighting to save Bonanza Flats, a 1,350-acre swath of alpine outback at the top of Guardsman Pass.

By Ashley Sanders

Photo by Bret Webster

Photo by Bret Webster

Photo by G. Brad Lewis

Photo by G. Brad Lewis

Photo by G. Brad Lewis

Ringing the Alarm

For decades, this mountain playground faced development threats; as of 2016, it was slated to become a high-end gated community. Fisher knew the development would have consequences: Skiers would lose access to pristine backcountry, cyclists would give up miles of trails, and hikers would forfeit soaring peaks and azure lakes —  to say nothing of the moose, deer, elk, bears and mountain lions that call the place home.

But she also knew that the problem, as Mitchell cautions, is “people don’t know what they’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” So she rang the alarm.

“Bonanza Flats is really the heart of the Wasatch,” Fisher says. “It’s an incredibly unique property, and if we lose it, we lose wildlife habitat, watershed access and a huge recreational mecca.”

Fisher’s not kidding. The area is home to the endangered flammulated owl, provides drinking water for half of the Wasatch Front and attracts wilderness buffs of all stripes. And it’s accessible — just 40 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City.

 

Raising $13 Million

The town of Park City recognized the stakes, and in 2016, 72 percent of voters approved a $25 million bond to purchase the property from Wells Fargo. But the price tag was daunting: A cool $38 million — leaving a $13 million gap.

That’s when Fisher jumped into the fray, along with nearly a dozen other organizations dedicated to protecting the land. Fisher has worked in conservation for 26 years but has never seen such common cause and purpose.

“Whether it’s the trails group that sees tremendous trail connections or the backcountry ski group that cares about access for skiers, these groups have recognized preserving this land is fundamental to their mission,” Fisher says.

 

Loving the Land

Fisher knew people loved the land, but she was shocked by the level of response: In just two months, the group raised more than $9.5 million. Businesses donated because the land was important to their employees’ health and happiness. Governments pitched in because of the value of the watershed. And some 2,000 concerned citizens donated because they loved the land. Fisher even heard from a single mother whose family set aside money they planned to spend on recreation and donated it to the cause. And Fisher understands the response. “It is an amazing piece of property that binds us together because we share experiences and connections on the land, through the land and with each other,” she says.

Just before this article went to print, members of Leadership Park City wrote the check for the final $3,119,253 raised by the Save the Bonanza Flat coalition, adding in the memo “Saved: Bonanza Flats.”

The land will be protected in perpetuity, giving generations of Utahns access to this high-elevation oasis. “I hope we continue to protect those places that set our communities apart, that make us feel like we are really home,” Fisher says, “and that we maintain what is unique and special about the places that we love.”