Arches National Park is seeking public comment on a proposed traffic congestion management plan that would regulate entry during the busiest season and times of day at the park. Reservations would be required for vehicles between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., March through October. The system could be implemented as early as March 2019, with online reservations available six months before the required start date.
The change is intended to address the park’s skyrocketing number of visitors and associated traffic congestion.
“Visitation to Arches National Park doubled in the past 11 years, reaching approximately 1.6 million visitors in 2016,” states a National Park Service press release. “During high-visitation season, March through October, visitors routinely wait in long lines to enter the park and then must search for empty parking spaces at all popular sites. Long lines to enter the park cause congestion at the intersection of U.S. 191 and the park entrance road, which can be a serious traffic hazard.”
The park also released a 40-page environmental assessment (EA), which will be available for public review for 30 days, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 4. The document outlines various alternatives that were considered and rejected, including a shuttle system, increased parking and infrastructure to accommodate traffic, construction of a secondary entrance and implementation of a daily vehicle cap. The document states that those alternatives were rejected for a variety of reasons, including expense and negative impacts on visitor experiences.
Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said that despite growing visitation, the parks have faced a funding decrease of about half a percent.
“So it creates ridiculous constraints to have that kind of growth of visitation and have your budget flat and slightly declining,” Varela said. “We have looked at her draft proposal and at the high level we think a reservation system may be a good solution to this complex problem because she is proposing to create managed growth, so that can protect the quality of experience of the visitor as well as for the local host community.”
The EA concludes that a reservation system would shift visitation to non-peak months (November through February) during which times reservations would not be required, which could have beneficial effects on the local economy. However, long-term growth in visitation could be lessened as a result.
“It is expected that the park would continue to attract visitors and contribute to the primary industries of tourism and recreation and to overall economic growth of the region,” the document states. “Nevertheless, the rate at which the park visitation continues to increase in the long term would likely be lessened relative to the no-action alternative … Overall, [a reservation system] is not anticipated to have major impacts on the local economy.”
The announcement comes on the heels of a proposal to increase fees at Arches and Canyonlands national parks. The proposal would increase fees to $70 for a private vehicle (up from $25). Annual passes would be available for $75. The proposed fee increase would go into effect for the busiest five months of the year.
Local businesses and business associations have just begun to consider the possible effects of a reservation system.
Utah Tourism Industry Association (UTIA) Executive Director Kaitlin Eskelson said that her organization is currently considering the possible effects of the proposed reservation system.
“We think it’s a lot at once and we’re trying to look at the ramifications or benefits of reservation system. We haven’t taken a position at this point … we’re opening the dialogue with congressional leaders and statewide leaders to determine what the best path forward is,” Eskelson said.
The UTIA has said that the U.S. Department of the Interior should take more time to consider the park fees increase and evaluate where funds are needed and how they will be spent.
Brett Sutteer, director of the guiding service Moab Cliffs and Canyons, described the announcement of the proposed reservation system as “disheartening.”
“It just feels a little bit oppressive and we’re kind of getting regulated to death out there with a lot of our freedoms … we used to have some commercial activities happening out there [in the park] and there’s just fewer and fewer,” Sutteer said. “I kind of feel like the decision has already been made and that the comment period is not going to have any affect on the ultimate outcome and especially when they release something without much lead time to the public comment period so that folks don’t get a chance to get the word out.”
The park will host an open house Nov. 16 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Grand Center, located at 82 North 500 West, to provide information about the proposal. The public is invited to ask questions and submit written comments. More information is available online at nps.gov/arch/learn/news/news110117.htm.
Written comment can also be submitted online at parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83785, or mailed to the National Park Service, Southeast Utah Group, Attn: Planning and Compliance Coordinator, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, Utah 84532.
Comments will be accepted until Dec. 4.