“The state of Utah cannot support the plan as it is currently written,” concludes a letter from the office of Gov. Gary Herbert to the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks Superintendent Kate Cannon with regard to the proposed reservation system at Arches National Park. While noting that, “we are united in seeking a management plan to protect and preserve these crown jewels of Utah without creating long-term harm to the local economy,” the letter suggests that, “not all feasible options have been explored and the plan lacks sufficient detail in critical areas.”
In the letter, Gov. Herbert asks that the National Park Service reconsider a “secondary entrance road and fee booth alternative” as well as the “built-for-demand alternative,” saying that, “the ability of new hiking trails to lessen overcrowding at congested areas is an untapped tool that should be fully analyzed in this [environmental assessment].”
Cannon said that the park is in the process of analyzing the insight received during the public comment period, and will come out with a revised traffic and congestion management plan in response.
“The public comment period that just closed was for the purposes of people giving opinions and thoughts and suggestions for how we could proceed in our planning. Our next steps are that we evaluate all those comments that we received, including the governor and we revise our plan and environmental assessment (EA) in response to that because that’s what public comment is for,” Cannon said.
At the same time, the local group Arches for the People has continued to organize for an alternative to the reservation system. On Dec. 12 founder Michael Liss presented his plan to the Moab Chamber of Commerce. He also spoke at the Dec. 19 meeting of the Grand County Council.
“It was actually really good because this is an issue that unites the whole community ... because it’s about the life of the community,” Liss said, adding that his presentation to the chamber received a “100-percent positive response. We’re focused on two things. One is to let the Park Service understand that this plan will have a significant adverse impact on the local economy … it’s pretty obvious but the work hasn’t been done to determine that one way or the other on their part … so what they need to do is go to the next step in the process under NEPA, the [National] Environmental Protection Act, and complete an … environmental impact statement ... the other part, which is actually the fun part, is to come up with an alternate vision for how to handle the traffic congestion in the park because as the National Park Service identified it, the problem is not too many people, it’s too many cars.”
Cannon, however, argued that the law does not require an environmental impact statement, saying, “Under the law and the regulations, an environmental impact study (EIS) isn’t warranted and we’ll address that [in the revised plan].”
Arches for the People has been in contact with Jeep and the UMTRA site liason Lee Shenton. Liss said that according to his conversations, the eastern 80 acres of the site has been remediated and is ready to be used.
“We understand that the Park Service is reacting to increased visitation combined with lower budgets,” Liss said, “so we are proposing public/private partnerships … in the tradition of the creation of the original national parks.”
Shenton said that gaining access to the site might be more complicated. Not all 80 acres have been fully remediated, he said.
“Bottom line is, whether it has been remediated or not is a moot point,” Shenton said. “No portion of that federal site can be developed until the remediation is complete … the only exception to that was two years ago when Arches was considering using a portion of the site as a parking lot for a shuttle service … The Department of Energy would have given Department of the Interior the opportunity to use a portion of the site that was remediated … It’s conceivable that the current administration could waive their policy or change rules to allow a use of the site before it’s remediated but basically that’s what it would take … doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen but the timing of it is in my opinion unlikely.”
Fiat Chrysler, meanwhile, has announced an electric Jeep coming out in 2020. Liss has been in contact with the company, he said, which has expressed interest in collaborating.
“It’s totally doable to have this fleet of electric Jeeps going into the park from a visitor center and transportation hub at the UMTRA site in 2020,” Liss said.
Liss said that the next step for the group is to keep track of the Park Service process as they review comments on the reservation system that were submitted during the public comment period.
“The next step would be to work with the Park Service and stay involved in every step of the process. [The Park Service’s] next step is to review all the comments and from reviewing the comments, they’ll determine what their next step is and we’ll be keeping track of their process,” Liss said.
The Utah Governor’s office also wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opposing the fee increases proposed by the national level of the Park Service.
“We agree with you and your staff regarding the need to address the $11.3 billion in deferred maintenance at National Park Service units across the country and the desire to alleviate overcrowding at national parks during the busiest summer periods,” the letter states. “The Utah Board of Tourism Development has carefully reviewed the proposal and concluded that it does not meaningfully address the backlog in deferred maintenance, nor does it create a structure to successfully move visitors from the busy summer season to the shoulder season.”
Key objections include that the proposed fee increases do not, “seriously address the backlog in deferred maintenance,” “will create disparities in park revenue generation and may decrease visitation,” and “could devastate small private businesses in rural areas.”
Instead, it suggests “innovative fee strategies, public-private partnerships and adjustments to funding for other public lands programs” to address the infrastructure backlog.
“We strongly encourage deep engagement with the private sector early in the planning process to protect economic interests in the rural areas surrounding national parks,” the letter concludes.