The National Park Service (NPS) has extended the comment period for its traffic congestion management plan at Arches National Park, with the new deadline set for Dec. 18. The original deadline was set for Nov. 23. The plan is available online for review and comment at go.nps.gov/archestrafficplan.
Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, said that the extended comment period will give NPS the opportunity to receive more feedback on the reservation system proposed in the plan and is necessary given what she calls “the confusing timing of the traffic plan announcement.”
The plan came on the heels of a proposal from NPS to increase fees at 17 parks around the country. Cannon emphasized that while Arches was considering a reservation system, the fee increase proposal was coming from the national level of NPS, rather than from the park.
“We can watch as the number of comments come in and if they’re still flowing, we want to still get them,” Cannon said. “We don’t have any imperative that we have to decide by a certain time. The second extension is because with the fee increase proposal that was made at the national level, that is kind of confusing and hard to sort out for people so we wanted to leave time for that, and if we get comments about that we’ll forward them on up to Washington, which is where they’ll deal with those.”
Under the proposed reservation system, the number of visitors to Arches would be capped at 2,006 entries between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Outside of that timeframe, entrances would not be restricted, according to the plan.
Four reservation blocks are proposed: 7 to 9 a.m., 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., 12 to 3 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Visitors would be able to arrive at any time during their reserved block and stay in the park for as long as they want. For those who arrive without a reservation, 25 percent of the spots will be held for day-of or day-before reservations.
Cannon said the traffic management plan is needed to improve visitor experience at the parks.
“Everybody knows what will happen if we don’t do this,” Cannon said. “We’ve seen the lines flow out onto the highway and we’ve seen the parking lots gridlocked and we’ve seen cars parked for over a mile lining both sides of roads with people walking back in traffic to the Delicate Arch trailhead or into the Devils Garden area or Windows. That’s what happens and that is not a very good experience for people. It’s frustrating and it’s crowded and it’s a little risky walking in the roads. It’s not what they had in mind when they envisioned going to the park.”
Some Moab residents remain concerned about the effect the reservation system could have on the local economy. Michael Liss has formed a group called Arches for the People to propose an alternative plan to the reservation system.
“On a philosophical level, people should have access to nature. So the idea that you’re going to need a reservation to get into a national park just doesn’t feel right,” Liss said. “ … I’m glad they’ve extended the comment period because people need time to understand the issue.”
As an alternative to the current plan, Liss and his coalition is suggesting a transportation center at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) site, where vehicles powered by renewable energy would ferry visitors into the park, thereby reducing congestion and long wait times.
“Imagine a new solar-powered visitors center and transportation hub at the UMTRA site,” Liss said. “It would be the epicenter of the environmentally sustainable future of Moab. How about going down in history as the first fully sustainable, zero emissions national park with a custom rental fleet of electric Jeeps accessed with a car-sharing mobile app?”
The Grand County Council wrote a letter to Cannon in favor of careful consideration of the reservation system.
“While promotion of the scenery within the park boundaries has successfully grown our economy and tax revenues, we realize that these successes have created traffic congestion and management issues for the Park Service. Grand County is concerned with the potential negative impacts of restrictive measures to limit visitors with substantial fee increases and a hard cap of visitation during the peak of our annual tourism cycle,” the letter reads.
Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells said he wants to see a collaborative effort between the county and NPS. “The county is not denying that you have a real [traffic] problem that needs to be mitigated,” Wells said. “But we want to encourage continued collaboration while addressing these issues as to not cause unnecessary economic harms … Any time you start to cap visitation it’s not just the numbers that I look at, it’s the message you’re sending to visitors.”
Cannon encouraged the public to comment on both the Arches traffic plan and the proposed national level fee increase. Comment on the traffic plan can be submitted at go.nps.gov/archestrafficplan until Dec. 18. Comments on the fee increase can be submitted at parkplanning.nps.gov/proposedpeakseasonfeerates until Dec. 22.