NPS receives 400 comments on Arches traffic plan
Do early visitation counts show plateau?
by John Hales
The Times-Independent
Jan 18, 2018 | 1734 views | 0 0 comments | 87 87 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This chart shows the increase in attendance of the “Big Five” national parks in Utah. The number of visitors to Canyonlands National Park nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016, while Arches National Park has seen just a little less that that percentage of increase over the same period. 	      Source: NPS website
This chart shows the increase in attendance of the “Big Five” national parks in Utah. The number of visitors to Canyonlands National Park nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016, while Arches National Park has seen just a little less that that percentage of increase over the same period. Source: NPS website

The plan to require reservations at Arches National Park has received more than 400 comments from around the world. The National Park Service is reviewing those comments as part of the process for implementing the plan, which Superintendent Kate Cannon says would allow for more visitors to the park, not fewer as many people have feared.

According to information released by NPS on Jan. 13, 421 comments on the Arches Traffic Congestion Management Plan Environmental Assessment were received during Nov. 1 to Dec. 18 comment period. The park service extended the comment period two weeks beyond the standard 30-day period in order to accommodate the input that kept coming in.

On Jan. 5, at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Grand County League of Women Voters and Citizens for Community Collaboration (“Sees”), Cannon offered an explanation of what has become known as the “reservation plan.”

“We have to have something new we can implement quickly because this is a very pressing issue,” she said, possibly referring to another idea being floated to create the nation’s first completely zero-emission national park at Arches by creating a parking lot and electric-vehicle shuttle or rental-car hub at a place just outside the park’s entrance.

That plan, under the vision seen by its innovator, Michael Liss, would take up to 10 or more years to fully implement.

Arches’ congestion problem is very much in the now, however.

“We are an anomaly,” Cannon said, with regard to the traffic congestion problems Arches has compared to traffic at other national parks. She said growth in visitor numbers really began taking off in 2013, when the state began implementing the “Mighty Five” tourism campaign for Utah’s five national parks.

Indeed, an analysis of numbers from NPS show a 47 percent increase in Arches visitors between 2013 and 2016, the last year for which complete data is available. From the decade before 2016, visitation almost doubled, going up by 90.4 percent.

But Arches was hardly alone.

A comparison between the Mighty Five shows Arches to have been the least mighty in terms of visitation increase. It was last in percentage growth from 2006 to 2016, and second-to-last from 2013 to 2016.

That doesn’t lessen the problem, however.

Long lines at entry stations, followed by hassles finding parking — only to find a parking space so far away that it requires a mile walk through traffic — Cannon said, means guests leave not with a beautiful experience, but with frustration.

Cannon said the reservation system would actually allow 40 percent more guests into the park than it can accommodate the way things are now. Reservations would allow park officials to manage a “steady stream” of visitors, rather than gushes of guests at certain times of day.

Cannon clarified certain points of the plan: First, it would not require commercial operators to have a reservation. It would be enforced for eight months each year, from March through October, and, “The rest of the year, the park would remain wide open like it is,” Cannon said. Reservations would not be required before 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m. and once inside the park, guests may stay as long as they wish.

Cannon acknowledged the concern — for some bordering on outrage — the reservation plan has evoked, especially when coupled with a concurrent plan to raise entry fees.

“We know that locals hold their parks dear,” she said.

State Sen. David Hinkins was less sympathetic, saying that what was bad for Arches would be good for state parks. Limiting or discouraging visitation at national parks would encourage visits elsewhere, such as state parks, he said at the town hall meeting.

When the federal government had a partial shutdown leading national parks to temporarily close in 2013, Hinkins said, “it was the best time the state parks ever had.”

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