Written comments started arriving in Superintendent Kate Cannon’s office in early November shortly after she and her team launched the idea. The initial comment period, which included a local public hearing, was extended to Dec. 18, 2017. During that time more than 400 comments were submitted. Although most state and local leaders have officially rejected the plan, my guess is that many private citizens and activist groups have voiced their support for efforts to throttle the bottlenecks and impacts at southeastern Utah’s most beloved park. It will be interesting to see how the NPS distills those comments and if they return with other options.
The concerns about what is happening just up the road from downtown Moab can’t be more closely felt than by our local NPS office. Although it’s easy to be critical of perceived federal overreach on this matter, and although none of us wants to be restricted, there are some big problems happening there. Fear and control are driving both ends of this issue. Some of us fear that Arches (and most of our public lands for that matter) are being used to their detriment, while at the same time fearing that we can’t go there as we like. Business folks and government leaders who manage budgets based on tourist and tax incomes fear that there will be reduced revenues if past and potential tourists go elsewhere because they think they can’t get into Arches. On the other side of the spectrum, there are fears that Arches will be ruined if hordes of people keep going there in staggering numbers.
To be sure, the divisive issue has energized debate about the future of Moab and our parks. The NPS was right to extend their initial comment period so that folks could have ample time to digest the issue and express their opinions. During that time I’ve heard some innovative and entertaining ideas about how to deal with the challenges.
A reservation system in Arches would be at the cutting edge of how visitors are managed in our national parks. Such a plan has been utilized at only one other national park and has certainly not been implemented at any of Utah’s “Mighty Five” parks or signature places such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or even at places such as our Smithsonian museums. But that doesn’t mean we should keep doing things the ways we always have.
One option of a local citizens group that became motivated in the wake of the reservation proposal is a proposed solar-operated transportation system that could be based outside the park entrance. Talk about cutting edge.
The mission of the National Park Service is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.” So therein lies the rub. It’s hard to argue that unmanageable hordes of people aren’t impairing the park when hundreds of idling cars await the park entrance and parking lots. That’s the scenario during the busiest of our tourist seasons. But what’s the picture on the trails? That’s a whole separate debate and one that needs to be brought into the discussion about how to deal with vehicle congestion at the park.
Although the NPS hasn’t yet released year-end visitor counts for 2017, in October the park was showing a three percent decrease. Recent but unofficial numbers put the totals at one-percent more visitors compared to 2016. Canyonlands had an approximate five percent decrease, while the three other national parks in Utah had visitor increases of five to eight percent. The increasing onslaught apparently didn’t happen here; although the processing of visitors into the park did keep the entrance gate congested a bunch of times as it has over the years.
This is more than a mass-transit issue. Does the NPS want to regulate how many people go into the park, and is doing so by blaming cars? Or is there a genuine interest in facilitating ways to let people see Arches in other ways? The NPS wants private tour operators to be part of the solution. But — and no pun intended — those private concessionaires could then be in the driver’s seat of who can afford to see the park during peak times if the average tourist doesn’t make a reservation.
The hundreds of comments the NPS received will help to guide looming decisions. The various factions surrounding the issue have at least one thing in common: We all care deeply about it. Even though the official comment period on the proposed Arches reservation plan has just ended, now is the time for the public to stay observant and help to hammer out the best solutions.