Too many campers, too few spaces

Another ripple effect of Moab’s booming tourism economy – out of control dispersed camping

This map shows where camping is allowed near Moab.
Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

The downside of Moab’s wild popularity as a tourist destination is easy to spot at jam-packed Arches National Park, on the city’s traffic-clogged streets and sidewalks and inside its crowded commercial outlets, but the huge and growing number of visitors also impact the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM offers more than 650 campsites in the Canyon Country District, but the ones closer to town tend to fill quickly during the busy season.

This has led to a spike in the amount of dispersed camping where it isn’t allowed – and far too many campers where it is permitted, such as Klondike Bluffs north of the city, which is the focus of a BLM plan to provide designated campgrounds at the popular mountain biking trail and put an end to dispersed camping.

BLM Spokesperson Lisa Bryant in an interview said the number of campers at Klondike Bluffs has become problematic in a real way, not only with the sheer number of campers and their impact on natural resources, but that many of them take up space in the parking lot near the Copper Ridge Dinosaur Track interpretive site and restrooms, depriving the public of a parking space – which could eventually lead to conflict.

Closer to home, Bryant said the BLM does not allow dispersed camping on the lands it manages within a roughly 20- mile radius around Moab, but people are ignoring that prohibition, and many of them are doing so in all the wrong ways. Bryant said they drive off road to get to a campsite, destroying vegetation along the way.

They camp within a foot or two of the ubiquitous No Camping signs the BLM sticks into the ground where it doesn’t want people to camp, an act of arrogance sure to catch the attention of BLM law enforcement officers – and even recreation and maintenance staff, all of whom work together to protect resources and each other.

Litter – loose and bagged – disfigures once nearly pristine public lands. Rock art is defaced. Resources are damaged, or worse.

But the “elephant in the room” is the increase in human waste – from people who don’t pick up after themselves to those with recreational vehicles who recklessly dump their black and gray water tanks on the ground when they leave. The problem is included in the BLM’s Moab Field Office Visitor Guide under the scatological yet no-nonsense headline: Pack Out Your Poop.

Visitors are informed that all solid waste must be packed out in approved waste bags or portable toilet systems that can be purchased at the Moab Information Center and local outdoor businesses.

“It’s a human health and safety issue,” said Bryant. She said most people, whether at designated campgrounds or dispersed, follow the rules and are respectful of the land and neighboring campers.

“But there are always a small few… who aren’t respectful of natural resources or other visitors”, she said. “We want people to enjoy camping and we have many options, but it’s important to remember to stay on the designated roads. In dispersed camping areas driving off-road to park near a site is not legal, creates resource damage, and encourages others to do the same. “

Camping has evolved over the years, but it as popular as it ever was, and Moab draws enthusiasts like moths to a flame.

“Many of us grew up camping, but it’s not the same as when we were kids. There’s an increase of people living in RVs or embracing the van life movement,” said Bryant. “That’s a different kind of use of public lands, and those folks may be looking for a different kind of experience and the ability to live more frugally. We have observed a marked increase in RVs and camper type vehicles in many of our dispersed camping areas, such as Klondike Bluffs.”

The BLM has adjusted to this sea change in camping behaviors by establishing a public education campaign designed to teach people not only what the rules are, but also why they exist in the first place.

“We try to maintain a regular field presence,” she said. “It’s a matter of educating people. That’s always our first approach. Most people want to do things the right way, they just need to know how.”

Dispersed camping where it isn’t allowed can lead to an infraction, and sanctions can be handed down even where it is legal if it is not properly done – driving off the road to get to a site, for example.

Bryant said the BLM expects to set a record this year in visits to the campgrounds and campsites the Moab Field Office manages.

“We’ve been seeing an increase of 7 percent a year in visitation since 2012,” said Bryant. “We’re on pace to see more than 3 million visitors. We make these estimates based on campground visits, reports from commercial guides and other permittees, trail counters and other data. The use at Corona Arch has nearly doubled over the last several years and anytime you see that kind of use it’s an impact.”

Bryant said the BLM tries to be proactive and recently added bathrooms to the trailhead and expanding visitor parking.

Bryant said the BLM appreciates its local and national partners, such as Tread Lightly, “who help us promote responsible behavior on public lands. Our local commercial outfitters and guides also do a really good job of promoting good resource ethics with clients.”