A tourism-related concept that at first may have seemed far-fetched and pie-in-the-sky might have some legs — or make those wheels — if local raconteur Michael Liss has his way.
Far from being snickered out of a packed room as outlandish on Tuesday, Liss, a Moab resident and organizer of Arches for the People, ended up gaining several supporters and more than a little bit of interest in his idea.
“Let’s do something incredible,” Liss said as he began to explain his plan. “We want to create the first fully sustainable, zero-emissions, solar-power national park by 2030.”
The plan is Liss’s answer to a National Park Service proposal for reducing crowding and congestion problems at Arches National Park. The NPS plan is known as the “reservation plan,” and has proved to be unpopular with local residents, tourism-business owners, the Grand County Travel Council, the Grand County Council and, most recently, the Governor of the State of Utah. It is so-called because it would require Arches visitors to make reservations, and could cap those reservations at a couple thousand per day.
Right off the bat, Liss said, the cap would cut the number of tourists by 37 percent.
Then there are those who wouldn’t travel to the Moab area because of the message such a cap and reservation system would send. With 417 national parks in the U.S. and none of them having such a system, the first one to do so would surely get attention, Liss said.
“This is going to be on the front page of all the newspapers: ‘Arches is the first national park to have advanced reservations,’” he said. “That basically sends the sub-message, ‘Moab is too crowded; let’s go somewhere else.”
And that would be a threat to Moab itself.
“Arches National Park is still the lifeblood of this community,” Liss said. “What happens to Arches very directly affects where this community goes.”
But before Arches, the Atlas Mine was the area’s lifeblood.
Liss contends that the old mine site should again save the town by being an alternative solution to the Arches congestion problem and obviating the potential death-knell of the reservation plan. His vision would utilize the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action site, known as UMTRA, as a parking lot for visitors to Arches National Park, who would then have different options for entry into the park itself: One, they could take an electric shuttle from the parking lot into the park. Two, they could “pay a lot more” and continue to drive their own private vehicle. Or, three, they could “pay a little and get an electric Jeep,” to drive for their time in the park.
Liss said his group has already been in contact with Jeep, the carmaker. According to Liss’s report, Jeep would be very interested in providing electric SUVs, which are planned to be in production by Liss’s timeline of 2030.
The site, in a public-private collaboration, might include other things: a visitors’ center, a museum could be located there, or perhaps, Liss said, “an expedition center” that would allow Moab’s adventure-tourism businesses to get an early shot at Arches visitors to encourage them to try the area’s other activities.
Liss said he’s been in contact with the governor’s office and has been encouraged by officials there who were happy to see the very thing they’ve fought for years to have happen: Locals taking the driver’s seat in finding solutions and making decisions about public lands.
Liss’s enthusiasm for the idea was as infectious as it was evident. When he concluded, a group of 25 to 30 people who had been in the meeting for a different issue applauded him, and gathered around him as they exited the room to express interest and get involved.
“I couldn’t believe people clapped,” Liss said later that evening, by which time he had already received emails even from people who weren’t at the meeting, wondering how they could help.
Still at the meeting, he got a thumbs-up from Council Member Curtis Wells, who commended Liss for studying the procedure the NPS had used in advancing the reservation plan.
According to federal law, proposals by federal agencies must consider impacts not only on the physical environment, but on cultural and economic environments as well. The park service, Liss said — and Wells seemed to agree — understates the reservation plan’s potential economic impact. If the NPS was more truthful about that impact, both Liss and Wells said, the reservation plan would have to undergo a more rigorous environmental impact study, rather than the environmental assessment for which a public comment period ended a few weeks ago.
“That specific piece, that’s where the meat is at,” Wells said. “It’s really important that they play by their own rules. Really hone in on that, and make that be widely acknowledged.”