Utah ranchers are suing UDOT for removing 1,000 trees for the Provo Canyon Trail

Construction of a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) paved trail connecting Vivian Park to Deer Creek begins while the landowner goes to court

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of trees have been removed along the Provo River, as pictured Thursday, where UDOT is building a 3.5-mile trail through Provo Canyon.

Construction of a long-awaited trail through Provo Canyon has begun, connecting existing trail systems at both ends, but a prominent property owner is now complaining about the removal of hundreds of trees to make way for the trail along the Provo River.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” grumbled rancher Steve Ault, who has owned about 1,500 acres on both sides of the river since 1984. “I drove there and just couldn’t believe the destruction. They brought in two big diggers the day before and pretty much destroyed a stretch there between what we call Horseshoe Bend and the double bridges.”

The stretch of river in question is in the narrowest part of Provo Canyon, the busy recreational corridor between Provo and Heber City. Here, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), in partnership with the Mountainland Association of Governments, is building a 10-foot-wide multi-use paved trail to fill a gap between the Provo Canyon Parkway in Vivian Park and the Deer Creek trailhead of the reservoir. The project will connect two extensive trail systems in the Utah and Heber Valleys.

Much of this 3.5-mile track traverses Ault’s property and is planned to be built within the Heber Valley Railroad’s track access, which will provide scenic rail travel throughout the area.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trees have been removed from this stretch of the Provo River, pictured Thursday, to make way for an attempt to build through the gorge between the Utah and Hebert valleys

UDOT claims it owns the ground beneath those tracks, while Ault’s attorneys say the agency only owns the right-of-way of the rails.

“Even beyond the ownership issue, it’s about the absolute destruction of a number of trees that didn’t have to be destroyed to create a 10-foot trail,” Ault said. “The real tragedy is the destruction of this route, which we call ‘National Treasure’.”

What frustrates Ault is his ownership dispute with UDOT. The agency claims it acquired the old railway and the land beneath it back in 1971, a few years after the railway line was abandoned. It formerly served as the Heber branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, built in 1899 to connect the then isolated Heber Valley to the outside world.

He was so upset at the loss of the trees that he hired an attorney to file an injunction in court to put an end to the trees being cut down.

Citing Ault’s lawsuit, UDOT declined to comment.

“According to our property records, we believe UDOT owns the property in question, but we will work with Mr. Ault and the courts to resolve the situation,” agency spokesman John Gleason said.

But there may be no more trees along the path alignment to save, nullifying the lawsuit in court.

According to Ault, the UDOT contractor had already completed tree felling last week, part of the work that had to be completed before April 15 to avoid disturbing nesting birds.

“Without trees, there is no impact on birds,” said Brent Bohman, one of Ault’s attorneys. “It’s a sleight of hand.”

The $44.7 million project includes relocating the Vivian Park playground, replacing a historic railroad trestle with a modern bridge and building a pedestrian bridge over the river, and adding parking and various access points. The trail runs parallel to US Highway 189 between mile markers 13 and 17.

In places where the gorge is extremely narrow, the trail is built on cantilevered concrete slabs over the river.

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Ault said up to 1,000 trees, including many centuries-old box trees, were felled and hastily hauled away a half-mile route. There were few, if any, trees between the river and the highway. He was not informed in advance about the pruning and only found out about it from neighbors after it had already begun.

Ault got the Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office to shut down work, but UDOT was allowed to resume after a temporary closure, prompting Ault to go to court. He hired attorney Brady Brammer, a Republican lawmaker from Pleasant Grove, who has supported state funding for the project.

“They had no environmental protection at all,” Ault said. “If you look at your own [environmental study]they said there is no environmental impact, no impact on adjacent landowners.”

However, without the trees, the retaining wall of the highway is completely exposed and road noise is much more noticeable along the river.

“I’m just throwing money at it. I pulled out all the stops because someone needs to be held accountable,” Ault said. “It was just swept under the rug.”

Justin Scaccy

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