Cannon: Study flawed due to insufficient data

Both toll gates are open at Arches National Park early Tuesday morning as visitor traffic backs up. Congestion at the park has become a problem for visitors and park staff alike, and a potential solution has rankled some residents.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

There is near universal consensus that traffic congestion at Arches National Park has become so problematic that it has significantly diminished the tourist experience for the 700,000 or so annual visitors, has stressed undermanned park staff and threatened the physical environment that draws people from around the world.

That much became clear Tuesday night when Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group, which includes Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, addressed the Grand County Council and an overflow audience to announce that a controversial proposed reservation system has been put on the backburner. 

The decision was made after an economic analysis indicated requiring reservations would dent the Moab tourist economy from between $11 million and $22 million per year – for at least the first couple of years.

And while nearly everyone who spoke was against the proposed reservation system, primarily due to the estimated sharp drop in tourism revenue, Cannon explained there were flaws in the study that might have contributed to the bleak, if temporary, financial outlook.

“It’s time to take a step back,” said Cannon. “We need to re-engage the public and elected officials.”

Cannon said options – including a shuttle system – are once again under consideration and will be discussed at an as yet unscheduled open house she hopes will be held later this spring or summer. And she didn’t slam the door on the reservation system. 

“We have an enormous crowding problem” that’s impacting the enjoyment of visitors, she said, and while the reservation economic analysis is “what makes headlines” due to the report and its up to $22 million negative impact, the analyst had a difficult time getting sufficient data.

She said the author extrapolated his or her findings after evaluating 13 Utah counties and their collective annual economies of more than $15 billion. 

She offered a graphic that shows visitation increased dramatically for each of the past several years. The only anomalies were in 2015 and 2017 when visitation flat-lined, first due to a government shutdown in 2015 and then park infrastructure projects two years later. Cannon explained the estimated $11 million in losses was based on a five percent reduction in visitors and the $22 million on a 10 percent reduction, or between 35,000 and 70,000 fewer annual vehicles. 

She also said the drop in tourist spending did not translate to a contraction in the local economy, but rather to the public not being comfortable with the reservation system.

She said the analyst made his or her assumptions as if nobody were made aware a reservation system was put in place, and that “every tourist would skip a trip to Moab” altogether if they were deterred by the system. 

Cannon said it would take a huge effort to get the word out and sell such a system, noting it would only be in effect during peak visitation times, primarily in the middle of the day, and reservations would not be required for early morning or late afternoon visitors.

She said the system could even provide an economic benefit since it might push tourist season into the winter months when no reservations would be required. In fact, she said the system would be in place for only half of the year.

“I think we all have to realize the data was very hard to find,” she said. “The community doesn’t keep the kind of data that would be most useful.” The report certainly caused “consternation and confusion,” she said. 

Cannon didn’t address what type of data would be most beneficial, but she said the time to do something is now, “because we have huge problems.”

Citizens who spoke did not disagree with Cannon insofar as congestion is concerned, but few backed the reservation system.

Longtime Main Street merchant Dottie Byrd said requiring reservations would “be devastating” and a “terrible thing.”

Hotelier Josh Green said the projected economic loss would harm his business, saying 60 to 80 percent of his guests on non-event weekends are here for Arches. “The rest of the state is basically waiting for us to mess this up,” he said. “This will make tourists feel unwelcome. The reservation system will really hurt the town.”

Cannon to this point said the reservation system was proposed for “the same reasons hotels and restaurants take reservations.” Still, she conceded a shuttle system also is being considered, as well as improvements to the park that would create more than a single entrance and exit point. 

Jeramy Day, also a hotelier, said the reservation system would compromise a market that’s already showing signs of uncertainty. While he conceded it’s difficult to say what would happen should a reservation system be put in place, “the reality is, people will lose jobs.” He said putting in the system “isn’t worth the risk.”

Colin Fryer, the owner of Red Cliffs Lodge and three hotels in town, said the crowding is “obvious” and there’s no disagreement there, but there is disagreement about possible solutions.  He said whether the reservation system causes a $10 million or $40 million hit to the economy, “it’s going to be a lot.”

He also objected to the National Park Service choosing Arches to be the first park with a reservation system. “It’s never been tried anyplace before,” he said. “Why do we have to be the guinea pig?” Fryer said the park could open both toll gates – Cannon said they are doing that now – and that overflow gravel parking lots could be built. He even suggested raising the price of admission.

Council Member Mary McGann had an opposing view. She said during a recent trip to Denver she met people who were postponing a Moab visit until the reservation system was in place. “I’m not saying it’s the answer,” said McGann, “but people are choosing not to come.”

Later in Tuesday’s meeting Michael Liss, chair of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee, thanked Cannon for not slamming the door on his planned shuttle service, which he believes will help alleviate crowding at Arches.