Gridlock over travel: A proposed permit system on two Canyonlands roads meets resistance

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A National Park Service proposal to implement a permit system on two popular roads in Canyonlands sank like a rock when it was floated before the San Juan County, Utah, commissioners at their March 24 meeting.

Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group (which includes Canyonlands and Arches national parks and two monuments) and Kevin Moore, chief ranger for Canyonlands and Arches, told the commissioners that the agency would like to begin requiring permits for all motor-vehicle and bicycle day use on the White Rim Road in the Island-in- the-Sky District and the Elephant Hill Road in the Needles District.

Permits for the backcountry campsites accessed via the roads – eight sites for Elephant Hill, 20 for White Rim – would be issued separately and would not count toward the day-use numbers. Commercial guides also would not be under the system. The permits would be free for now.

A comment period on the proposal is open through April 14.

Cannon said the proposal is designed to preserve the primitive and uncrowded nature of a trip along those routes. People come to Canyonlands just to drive the narrow four-wheel-drive roads through the stunning red-rock landscape, she said.

“We want to keep them narrow because that is part of the experience,” she said. However, problems can arise if long lines of Jeeps are backed up, because there are few places to pull over without.

“One of the problems we have on both of these roads is large groups of vehicles,” Cannon said. “We recently had a dozen vehicles lining up to go over Elephant Hill, so the person waiting to go down has to wait for all those vehicles to go up.” This doesn’t happen often, she said, but it’s a problem when it does.

Cannon said the park would like to set a daily limit of 24 day-use vehicles and 12 bicycles on Elephant Hill, and 50 day-use vehicle permits and 50 bicycle permits for the White Rim Road. Motorcycles count as vehicles.

Each motor vehicle and individual bicycle would need a permit.

However, the commissioners took a dim view of that idea.

Commissioner Rebecca Benally said Charlie DeLorme, the county’s economic- development director, travels internationally to promote tourism in the county. “If we’re going to limit it by day passes and permits, that’s almost like limiting the economic development and tourism,” she said.

Cannon said the number of day-use permits is set at a level that would allow for significant growth over current use, and it could be tweaked if necessary. The highest single number of vehicles the park has ever had going over Elephant Hill at one time was 44, she said, and that included commercial tours and overnight campers, who are counted separately.

“The number of day users was probably under 20, and we’re proposing 24 vehicles per day,” Cannon said. “That was one day. We have a very, very long season and all those other days had significantly less use.” She said 24 motor-vehicle day passes for Elephant Hill would probably represent a doubling of current average use, based on traffic counters in the park, which are somewhat unreliable.

“This is what happened in Salt Creek,” warned Commissioner Bruce Adams, referring to a waterway in the Needles District that was historically used as a vehicle route to scenic Angel Arch. But the park closed it to motorized users, and the county sued. After a protracted and expensive court battle, the park’s decision was upheld by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We went to a permitted use in Salt Creek, then the next thing we know, Salt Creek is closed to motorized vehicles,” Adams said.

Cannon said that happened because the Park Service was sued by groups arguing that motorized use was damaging the fragile riparian area.

“So then we get sued on Elephant Hill and it’s closed,” Adams predicted. “I think that would be as terrible as not being able to go to Angel Arch. If Canyonlands becomes a hiker and biker park only, I think that would be horrible.”

“I agree,” Cannon said.

She said a permit system will not discourage visitation; in fact, it will likely have the opposite effect.

“More people come to the national parks than come to the whole suite of public lands around us,” she noted. “The things we require reservations for become the most popular things that we have. I think there is something about a reservation that causes people to value the experience more.”

But Commission Chair Phil Lyman said when state parks get increased visitation, they respond by accommodat ing it. “They put up more yurts, expand their campgrounds,” he said. “I would like to see the park accommodate the people that want to come and if there’s thousands of people, that’s why they go to a park.”

But Cannon said unlimited travel on those two short roads would destroy the very qualities that make them attractive.

“It’s sort of the nature of my job to balance use and protection of what brings that use,” she said.

She added, “The more people we get, the more we have to take measures like this in order to preclude getting to the point where we lose what we are required to protect. It’s a conundrum.”

Years ago, Cannon said, when the park implemented the permit system for the backcountry campsites off those two roads, “it gave people a highly sought-after experience of relative tranquility and uncrowdedness.”

But Lyman said for locals, it is frustrating to face these sorts of restrictions. “You start to get the impression that this county belongs to the feds and it’s fruitless to try to recreate in your own back yard.”

“What we are trying to do in Canyonlands is keep the qualities that bring people here to visit it,” Cannon countered. “Without managing use, we will lose some of the things. . . like the nature of that road, simple and small, kind of a frontier, primitive feeling – that is what people love about the place.”

DeLorme, who was present at the meeting, said he has concerns about limits, but they are not always a detriment.

“Any time I hear ‘limits’ I freak out a little bit,” he said. However, he said publicity about a site in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has greatly increased visitation to nearby places, despite a permit system that has been implemented for that one area. “It actually turned out positive for the business community in Kanab,” he said.

Cannon said the term “limit” is somewhat misleading. “This initial limit has been set at twice of what our usual visitation is to either of those places, so I don’t think it can currently be called a limit.

“But I think we need to set some kind of a bar so we can measure the effect and see whether we’ve got the number right.”

However, Benally was clearly opposed to any permit system or limits and said they are particularly upsetting to her because she is Native American.

“I just want to enlighten you,” she told Cannon. “As a Native American person, we’re directly under government regulations and policies that are so layered, at times those policies just put you in a ball to where you can’t even do anything, so the amount of restrictions – permitting is restriction, however you see it, that’s what it is.”

She said all her life she has experienced the feeling “where government has a thumb-hold on everything we do.”

“We can hardly improve roads because we have this series of mandates we have to meet. . . I understand what you think you’re doing here, you’re trying to plan ahead, but I don’t think you have the right approach to do it,” she told Cannon.

Benally said the park’s best approach would be fewer restrictions and more education of visitors and to leave a “legacy of understanding.”

“To put up one more policy, one more regulation, one more mandate really doesn’t solve anything. I can tell you that from experience. . . .

“I really feel bad for the local residents of San Juan County, where everything is just being so restricted that after awhile we’re going to have to ask permission for every little thing that we do. . . As Native American people we have to live with that every day. . . and then we have to turn around and try and ask for a little bit of freedom and it always ends up in lawsuits or whatever, so in your prediction and what you’re trying to do, to me the best way is to try and educate the people. . . .

“Having been there, having that experience, it’s not a good place to be,” Benally said.

“Thank you, commissioner,” Cannon said. “I do understand.”

Lyman and Cannon agreed further talks would be beneficial.

This article is based on the official audio recording of the county commission’s meeting

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