A meeting between the supervisor of Arches National Park and the organizer of a group that opposes a plan to require reservations for park visitors found little common ground, and instead resulted in one of them threatening to walk out of the roundtable discussion, and the other portending a lawsuit.
Arches for the People organizer Michael Liss arranged for the meeting with Arches National Park Superintendent Kate Cannon, which was also attended by a select group of community leaders on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
It began well enough, with agreement on two things.
First, “We all have in common that we love the park. That’s a given,” Liss said.
Second, overcrowding at the park was a huge issue that needed to be solved. Liss even described it as an “existential” one.
That relatively small piece of common ground was all they could find to stand on.
“We are not going to help you establish our national parks, and then let you tell us we cannot use them,” Liss read from an earlier letter he had written regarding the park’s proposal to require visitors to have entrance reservations in order to solve the congestion problem.
Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0
Liss said he had come to feel his cause as “Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0,” a reference to civic uprisings against the federal government’s authority over public lands, primarily in southern and eastern Utah, back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Like Ray Tibbetts, a Grand County resident who was a community leader, politician and an icon of the Sagebrush Rebellion (and who passed away not quite a year ago), Liss said, “It’s our job to make sure it works the way we want it to.”
Liss has proposed an alternative plan for solving the congestion problem that would include a 2,000-vehicle parking lot on a portion of what is now the Atlas Mill remediation site (UMTRA site), and a system of shuttles and clean-energy fueled, GPS-enabled vehicles.
When first proposed, Liss touted that the plan would create the nation’s first zero-emissions, clean-energy national park by the year 2030. At Tuesday’s meeting, he called it the “pilot project for the national park of the future,” and said that, after having spoken with many people, he felt he could get it done by 2020.
Liss and others have more than a little concern over the park’s reservation-system plan. First, they simply don’t like the idea that local residents, who feel a closer sense of ownership and stewardship over the park, would lose the ability to visit it any time they want.
Second, they are fearful of the perception the reservation system might create, and that it would discourage people from visiting the park as an implicit sign that the park was too crowded. That, of course, would mean a decline — possibly a significant one — in the local economy.
“Given that there is overlap with the county and our economy … it is definitely something that is of interest to us,” said Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, who was at the meeting.
and enchanting visits
Lexie Samuelsen, of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, said, “The entire business community wants everybody to have a quality experience,” when they visit the park, but she was concerned the reservation plan was not the best way to achieve that.
Cannon, however, defended the plan, and explained it with perhaps more detail than has been previously reported or generally disseminated.
While other options had been explored, such as an alternate north entrance to the park or one of two possible additional roads, none of those were realistic, she said, because of jurisdictional or other practical limitations.
Also, she said, those solutions might help with congestion at the park’s entrance but would do nothing to solve congestion within the park itself, which is just as important a consideration.
As for people possibly getting discouraged from visiting the park, that’s a concern already.
“Right now, we’re at risk of having them say, ‘It’s too crowded at Arches,’” Cannon said. “This is not the great, enchanting visit we want it to be.”
Cannon does not see an either-or choice between the park’s reservation plan and Liss’ plan. “There’s nothing to say you can’t keep working on that,” she told Liss. “But we need to solve a problem … we need to do something quickly.”
Cannon said the main thing contributing to the terrible congestion — which she illustrated with photos taken at the park that didn’t even show the worst of it, she said — is that people come to Arches all at once.
“We could fit them all in if they would just meter themselves throughout the day,” she said.
The ability to require reservations would help park officials do such metering.
Caveats to the
Cannon also pointed out a provision in the plan that had perhaps been largely missed, one that would mean visitors who failed to make a reservation wouldn’t necessarily be completely out of luck.
“We plan to set aside 25 percent of reservation spots for day-of or day-after,” she said, meaning a quarter of the reservations for different time slots would be withheld and saved for people who show up without a reservation.
Also, the park plans to implement a set of shuttles, run by a limited number of local businesses that would taxi people between Moab and the park on a set schedule. The shuttle-service contracts would be awarded by competitive bid, Cannon said.
And, she said, no reservations would be required for entry into the park prior to 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m.
As currently proposed, the reservation plan would allow 2,006 entries per day into the park during “reservation window” hours. Cannon said that number was flexible and could be adjusted as needed or appropriate.
She displayed a graph showing that, in 2016, only about 3.2 percent of all entries into the park would have needed to come at a different time had the reservation system been in place then. But, she said, that was absolutely doable. “We care about that 3.2 percent. We can get them into the park.”
Impact to the
Liss did not accept the justifications or rationale behind the plan, however, feeling that a detriment to the local economy would be inescapable.
And it is that fact that a possible future lawsuit could hinge upon.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to study potential impacts on the environment before undertaking any major action or operation. There are three levels of such study, depending on the level of impact that is forecast.
In developing the reservation plan, Arches performed an “environmental assessment,” which assumes a “finding of no significant impact” (or, FONSI).
But Liss and others, including Wells, feel the park should have considered the area’s economy as part of the “human environment” that is part of the NEPA process. Because of the potential impact there, they say the park should have gone through a more rigorous environmental impact statement, or EIS.
Many a federal project has been held up in court over NEPA-based disputes.
“We’re going to fight this reservation plan wherever it goes,” Liss said.
When Cannon defended the finding that there would not be enough impact on the economy to require an EIS, Liss said, “We’ll argue in front of a judge that that’s not true.”
Liss called into question visitation numbers from 2017 that have been published. He said he has seen numbers for certain months significantly change for no apparent reason. In January, he contacted the National Park Service about the anomalies, and an investigative case was opened. Liss implied that the numbers had been manipulated in order to provide continued justification for the reservation plan.
“I strongly object to your casting aspersions on my staff,” Cannon said, after explaining that the discrepancy could be explained by automatic traffic counters that had included counts of in-and-out construction traffic last spring.
“There’s lot’s of reasons this could change,” she said. “There’s nothing devious.”
The back-and-forth exchange between Liss and Cannon grew increasingly heated, with several interruptions, until Cannon threatened to abruptly curtail the discussion and leave the meeting.
Wells was not quite satisfied with the explanation about why Arches had not performed an EIS.
“We’re saying the human environment outside the [park] ... this could get rocked,” Wells said.
Cannon replied that park officials felt the economic effect would not be significant.
“File your FONSI … and we will protest it,” Liss said.