Concerns raised over Canyonlands backcountry helicopter permit request

A local helicopter company’s plans to charter flights to state lands within a federal Wilderness Study Area (WSA) near Canyonlands National Park has met some pushback from conservation groups and others who cite potential impacts regarding noise and solitude.

Moab-based Pinnacle Helicopters is currently seeking a right-of-entry permit with Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) for transportation and charter flights on four state-owned land parcels.

These state parcels — arranged in a “checkerboard” pattern across the map — are within or adjacent to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) WSA. One parcel sits directly adjacent to Horseshoe Canyon, home to the “Great Gallery” rock art site in Canyonlands National Park.

Kya Marienfeld, wildlands attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), said this right-of-entry application reveals how differently state and federal lands are managed.

“This [WSA] designation was put in place to ensure that a pristine wilderness-quality area remains unimpaired until Congress decides to officially designate the area as wilderness,” Marienfeld said. “Aircraft lands are not permitted in these Wilderness Study Areas, but because SITLA parcels are managed differently, they essentially allow an island within wilderness-quality lands where any activity the state chooses can be allowed, no matter how incompatible with the surrounding uses on public lands.”

According to Marienfeld, SUWA has expressed concerns that these helicopter flights would have a “terrible effect” on the wilderness characteristics of the area, which include solitude and remoteness.

“It’s noise and the effects on solitude. Helicopters are loud, and this area being so remote … it’s pretty untrammeled because it’s a little ways out,” she said.

According to Kim Christy, deputy director of Utah’s Trust Lands Administration, the National Park Service has also raised concerns regarding the permit. Although he says “no laws or regulations” will be violated by Pinnacle flying to the state-owned sites, Christy said SITLA is discussing certain mitigation options for their federal neighbors.

“The applicant and SITLA are considering other mitigating factors that would largely address NPS’ concerns, namely potentially offering reasonable assurances of maintaining flight distances away from the [national park] boundary,” he said.

Christy said that SITLA is also debating the location of the landing sites, but he notes options in this regard are limited “due to the rugged terrain.”

Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service, declined to comment on the concerns.

However, David Nimkin, the senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said that Cannon is hopeful that SITLA will take the park’s proximity into consideration.

“It’s certainly within the purview of a private business and SITLA to work out an arrangement — there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s part of the reason [Cannon] wanted to express some of her concerns to understand what the company was thinking and what SITLA was thinking,” Nimkin said. “She expressed her hope that the conditions and circumstances will be reviewed.”

Nimkin says that the most “distinctive” qualities of Canyonlands National Park include “its remoteness, its wilderness, its incredible quiet.”

“To compromise that is something that is concerning,” he said.

Although Pinnacle’s right-of-entry application is still “in process,” Christy said that permits for such commercial, short-term uses are authorized under SITLA’s administrative rules.

“Approval of this permit would be subject to all relevant federal and state laws and regulations,” Christy said. “This application allows the agency to potentially generate revenue from very remote property that is otherwise economically challenged.”

Dacia Black, representing Pinnacle Helicopters, told The Times-Independent the permit and landing sites in question — including one near Robbers’ Roost, a technical canyoneering area — would allow for transportation and charter flights only.

“These are not scenic air tours,” she said.

Black noted that Pinnacle Helicopters often receives requests for backcountry drop-offs for recreation purposes not only from their own customers but from other commercial outfitters as well.

At one time, Moab Canyon Tours considered partnering with Pinnacle Helicopters to run “heli-canyoneering adventures” to serve canyoneering sites like the BLM-managed Robbers’ Roost. Moab Canyon Tours owner Mike Stimola said that such excursions could take pressure from other canyoneering areas closer to town, for certain clients that could afford them.

“We’d like to not overrun the close canyons near Moab to keep the environmental integrity of this beautiful landscape,” Stimola said. “Most other guiding companies and local tourists focus on the close routes…We believe it would help to balance some of the business by taking a few VIP clients off the beaten track to less-populated canyoneering routes, lessening the impact of so many tourists in more local canyons.”

According to the BLM, commercial outfitters and guides who physically lead hikers from SITLA lands onto BLM-administered lands would need a special recreation permit authorized by the BLM, in addition to a permit from SITLA.

Although Stimola said Moab Canyon Tours considered such a prospect last winter, they have not moved forward on the necessary permits.

Layne Miller, one of the founding members of Utah Rock Art Research Association, hopes that officials can find a reasonable solution to mitigate the impacts of the proposed helicopter flights. He describes the collection of petroglyphs and pictographs at Horseshoe Canyon — near one of the proposed landing sites — on a global scale of importance.

“I’m coming at this from both sides,” Miller said. “I understand how popular rock art is, but I also understand that some sites are just really, really special. Horseshoe Canyon is one of the most special sites in the United States, not just Utah or the West.”

Approximately 250 feet long with roughly 18 life-size human figures depicted, Miller said Horseshoe Canyon’s “Great Gallery” was intentionally encapsulated into Canyonlands National Park in order to “protect it.”

“It’s one of those panels where when you go it should be quiet,” Miller said. “There shouldn’t be a lot of noise so you can really enjoy not only the panel but the area itself.”

Christy said that although SITLA will attempt to mitigate any conflicts expressed, the permit process will not be “impeded” because of them.

“SITLA’s mandate to manage its lands on behalf of its beneficiaries cannot be impeded by other public expectations and perceived conflicts, especially if conflicts emerge from outside the boundaries of its jurisdiction,” Christy said. “Nonetheless, SITLA tries to mitigate tensions with opposing viewpoints within reason.”

If the right-of-entry permit is approved, Christy said, it would be authorized on an annualized basis with no anticipated infrastructure installation.

ByBy Molly Marcello

The Times-Independent