The Sand Flats: In the beginning

Almost exactly one decade ago, Easter weekend, 1993, a call came in to Grand County Sheriff Nyland of an crowd a few miles above Moab at a place called the Pit. Another large group was reported to be partying nearby at the Radio Tower. Sheriff Nyland had no way of knowing he was on his way to a crisis, a crisis that would later became known as the Easter Riot.

We were caught off guard, says Nyland. There were around 2,000 people, all partying, which included sexual abuse and gang members with guns. They surrounded us and threw rocks at us, so there wasn’t much we could do. We ended up basically on the outskirts monitoring the situation and handling individual incidents as best we could. It was an unsafe situation for us. We only had about 20 officers.

Typical of names reflecting Western understatement, the scene of the riot is called the Sand Flats. The Pit is now called the Cluster. Sprinkled with slickrock domes and fins, the 7,240-acre Sand Flats area is cradled on the south by red rock mesas and the 13,000-foot peaks of the La Sal Mountains. To the east and west, the canyons of Negro Bill and Mill Creek zig and zag in and out of the domes and fins, and to the north lie the Colorado River and an endless vista over Arches National Park to the San Rafael Swell. All this, and only a few miles above Moab. National-park quality lands, yet under the care of the BLM and state, meaning few restrictions. A place where you could take your kids and dogs and horses, your mountain bikes, your dirt bikes, your four-wheel drives, and, as more and more spring-breakers began to discover Moab, your wild parties.

That spring was particularly bad, says Craig Bigler, who would soon be hired to create and manage a team to oversee the area. Each year it had become worse, but by 1993 it had turned into a horde of Wasatch-area teenagers who partied and spilled into town, facing off locals on the sidewalk and generally causing trouble.

Sheriff Nyland adds, Things have changed since that weekend. By the next year we’d planned ahead and had more people. That was the only time that scale of incident occurred. And we’ve done a lot of things to make sure that it never happens again

The riot brought to a head a problem that had become a thorn in the side of local agencies. With use of the Slickrock Trail at the Sand Flats increasing from 140 riders per year in 1983 to near 100,000 in 1993, many locals were disgusted that their backyard had become a party place, with vehicles driven across fragile soils, ancient trees burned for wood, and trash strewn everywhere. Bill Hedden, a county council member at the time, says, The riot made everyone aware that no one had a big enough jurisdiction to take care of the problem alone, and that all agencies are interconnected.

Management of the area had been a topic of discussion and planning by various agencies for a number of years, with a Grand Resource Area Resource Management Plan signed into effect in 1985, back before recreation was a major use in the area. In 1990, the Moab BLM District Manager approached the mayor of Moab, the Grand County Commission, and others to coordinate management of the Slickrock Bike area, which then led to the formation of the Slickrock Area Planning Committee that October. A year later, that committee presented its recommendations to the BLM, county, and city. And by 1992, a Slickrock Sand Flats Emergency Recreation Plan had become necessary, for the area was experiencing unplanned vehicle routes, unsightly fire rings, solid waste, trampled soils and vegetation, cut trees, human waste, and damaged fences.

In the meantime, Grand County and the City of Moab had been busy promoting tourism, looking for a way to rebound after a hard-hit slump in the uranium industry that left the county with a 19 percent unemployment rate in 1983. Boosters marketed Moab to off-road enthusiasts, mountain bikers, whitewater rafters, rock climbers, and anyone who might have a few bucks to spend.

Mountain bikers began discovering the area, but much of the impact at the Sand Flats was from high school and college spring breakers here to do one thing: party. Concerned locals argued that the tourist push had led to an overall discovery of Moab, and the problems at the Sand Flats were mere hints of things to come. As Bill Hedden put it in an d phrase, We went fishing for a little tourism to diversify our economy and hooked a great white shark. And now the monster has swamped our boat.

Starting in 1992, the Emergency Recreation Plan placed restrictions on activity at the Sand Flats, including requiring camping in established sites and prohibiting woodcutting and vehicles from driving off designated routes. But the BLM, with one ranger patrolling 1,800,000 acres of public land, simply didnt have the manpower to enforce the rules, and the Easter Riot was a shocking testimony to how ineffective such regulations could be. More needed to be done, and some business people worried that the spring breakers would displace tourists who had more money and class. A better, more creative solution was needed.

To complicate things, the state schools trust fund (SITLA) owned nearly one-third of the Sand Flats, and they were now interested in maximizing their income through development. One of their three sections at the Sand Flats includes the Slickrock Trail parking lot, as well as the campsites across the road. They began considering private commercial development, such as a developed campground or visitor center. The BLM had tried to engineer a land exchange with SITLA in 1990, but by 1993 the deal had fallen through, and SITLA opened the area to bids for a lease. The Easter Riot just added more doom and gloom for those concerned about protecting the area.

The month after the riot, BLM planner Mike O’Donnell organized a symposium to discuss options for local land management. He invited anyone who wanted to come, whether federal, state, regional, or private. The situation at the Sand Flats a sense of urgency, and from these talks sprang the Canyon Country Partnership, an interagency group designed to examine how to protect public lands and the people depending on those lands. Hedden says, The Easter Riot led to the creation of the Canyon Country Partnership, which included Grand, San Juan, Emery, and Carbon counties, as well as state and federal agencies. Out of this eventually came the Sand Flats Community Team. In early 1994, Moab resident Craig Bigler, who had extensive rural public policy management experience, went to work for the Canyon Country Partnership.

As members of the Partnership, Bill Hedden and BLM recreation planner Russ von Koch began to closely examine existing models of land management. One way to create funds to manage the area would be to collect an entrance fee, but if this were done by the BLM, the fees would automatically go into the federal treasury. But what if the county helped manage the Sand Flats, collecting user fees and then directly using those funds for that area? It was an innovative idea, and the proposal soon became a signed cooperative agreement between the county and the BLM. But the project had no start-up funds, so, like many good ideas, it waited for fruition. But not long after, in a serendipitous conversation, Bob Greenberg, director of the Four-Corners Mental Health Group, mentioned a new national program called AmeriCorps to Bill Hedden. AmeriCorps was a service organization that funded volunteers who worked for low wages and an education stipend, helping communities with various service projects throughout the country. Hedden asked Bigler to research AmeriCorps and see if its services could be utilized locally. Bigler did so and soon wrote a grant request to AmeriCorps for three-year funding to manage the Sand Flats. In 1994, a grant for a total of $260,000 over a three-year period was funded, and on October 1 of that year, the Community Sand Flats Team was born, with Bigler serving as Program Director and hiring nine AmeriCorp volunteers. Another $80,000 would come in the next two years from the Utah Travel Council.

A new county-BLM partnership was born, and it was the beginning of the creation of a highly publicized and award-winning plan for the management of public lands, an experiment that, as word got out, was closely watched by environmentalists, land managers, recreationalists, and locals. Crisis had led to action, and a creative solution had possibly been found.

But now the job was just beginning: how to best set-up the area for recreation while preserving it? And would the plan work? Could community values be incorporated into the plan? Could local government be a meaningful partner with federal land management agencies? And what would happen when the AmeriCorp monies ran out? And the specter of SITLA leasing its Sand Flat lands to private developers still hovered over everyone like a starving buzzard.

It was one of the most creative things I’ve ever done, says Bigler of his job for the next three years. The critics said I was just managing another campground, but the cynics never took hold because the plan worked.

The first step, hiring the AmeriCorps team, was a critical one, for these were the people who would make the plan work on the ground. AmeriCorps volunteers were not typically hired from the community they serve, but because of a housing shortage here, a variance was made. The hiring of locals helped in a situation where local trust was critical to making the plan work, for to the townspeople, the Sand Flats was their backyard. even though it was on federal lands. As in most Western towns, a typical mistrust of federal agencies existed here also.

One of the first things to do was to implement the fee collection, and a fee booth was soon standard fare at the entrance to the area. A trial booth had been successful, and the majority of users, mostly mountain bikers, had no problem with paving the $3 fee. But some complained of having to pay to use public lands that had traditionally been free of charge and technically belonged to the people, even though those wishing to continue up the road to areas above the Sand Flats weren’t charged. One local bike shop protested the fee and ran ads in protest, maintaining the fees hurt their business. Other complaints were made in the traditional Western voice of shooting at the booth in the cover of darkness, a reminder to everyone involved that community support was critical to success.

The Sand Flats Team was soon purchasing tools, equipment, and vehicles. The job of creating a manageable camping system was a lot more complicated than anyone had predicted, says Bigler. But because we had control of the money, we were able to do it our way. Next week: How the Sand Flats Team did it their way, and life at the Sand Flats today, ten years after the Easter Riot.