Utah climbers’ village runs into obstacles, seeks new site

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Climbers love cracks and fissures of the red-rock buttes of the Indian Creek Recreation Area near Canyonlands National Park. Planners are working on an idea for a small cluster of huts or cabins to house some of the climbers. Photo by Gail Binkly.

A proposal to build a collection of huts or cabins for rock-climbers in the Indian Creek Recreation Area near Canyonlands National Park is being revamped after initial plans ran into opposition.

“We’re kind of back to the drawing board,” said Oliver Crane, assistant city manager for Monticello, Utah, in a phone interview. “We’re looking at some other properties. We want to help, not do harm.”

The Indian Creek area, some 30,000 acres about 20 miles northwest of Monticello, straddles Highway 211, which heads west from Highway 491 toward the Needles District of Canyonlands. The route travels through vistas of cloud-topped red-rock buttes with the spires of the Needles rising in the background.

People travel through the area en route to Canyonlands, but many also come specifically to Indian Creek to camp, hike, bike, ride ATVs, or take photos. The largest group of visitors, however, is drawn to the stunning Wingate-sandstone cliffs not just for their beauty, but for the challenge they offer to climbing skills – particularly “crack climbing,” which focuses not on rock faces but fissures and crevices.

“They come from all over the world. Indian Creek climbing is somewhat worldrenowned,” said Donald Hoffheins, director of the Monticello Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the area.

But the climbers – who often camp outdoors for days, bring much of their own food, and pay few fees – don’t bring a major stream of revenue to San Juan County. Locals would like to see a little more financial benefit from their presence.

Speaking to the San Juan County commissioners on Aug. 11, Crane discussed a tentative idea for a “climbers’ village” in Indian Creek with possibly a dozen very modest cabins that could each house four to six people.

The village was proposed not on BLM land, but for an adjoining parcel managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). Such parcels are owned by the state and are managed to produce revenues, primarily for schools.

Crane told the commissioners the village could provide an economic benefit.

“If we have aggressive occupancy – 12 cabins, about $20 a night [per cabin], 90 percent occupancy for 70 percent of the year – it would bring about $56,000,” he told the commissioners.

The money would be split with the American Alpine Club, which was to manage the cabins, he said, and the remainder could go into a fund, managed by a nonprofit, that would disburse small-business loans and community-development grants in the area. The commissioners sounded receptive to the concept.

However, on Aug. 18, Heidi Redd came to the commission meeting to register a vigorous objection to the plan.


Sheer buttes of Wingate sandstone such as this one lure climbers from around the world to the Indian Creek Recreation Area. Photo by Gail Binkly.

As owner of the Dugout Ranch, which sits on the threshold of Canyonlands, Redd has been one of the major landowners in the Indian Creek area since the 1960s. In 1996, she sold the 5,260-acre ranch to The Nature Conservancy, retaining a lifetime lease, her home, and 25 acres. She currently manages TNC’s cattle-grazing operations on the ranch and on allotments on 250,000 acres of surrounding BLM land.

Redd told the commissioners the piece of SITLA land being discussed for the village contains her water diversion on Cottonwood Creek, and the proposal could affect her cattle operation as well as the ranch’s water supply. She also said she had not been informed about the plan and had only learned about it from reading a local newspaper.

Subsequently, Crane and others involved in the project – including the state, the University of Utah, and the American Alpine Club – decided to seek a new locale, he said.

The next step now, he told the Free Press, is “finding the correct piece of land that would be a good location both in a pragmatic business sense” and for all the adjoining landowners, including the Dugout Ranch, the National Park Service, and the BLM.

They will be looking for a piece of land that has already been impacted and where huts or cabins won’t harm the view.

Crane said the idea is to “make something that is pleasant to the eye and hopefully not necessarily in sight when you’re driving past, but if you’re there camping or at the hut or cabin or whatever the final drawing turns out, you’ll have a good view of the Needles or Indian Creek.


Crowding in the Indian Creek area has prompted the Bureau of Land Management to create better parking areas. Photo by Gail Binkly.

“We probably won’t have it right there in the heart of Indian Creek. Everyone wants to preserve as much as possible.”

He said planners want to involve numerous stakeholders in the decision-making. “The Park Service and BLM are advising on it, SITLA – everyone’s on board. I’m trying to take as much input as possible from lands groups and private citizens.” He said the concept “would be a good way to provide a benefit to the county without competing [with local businesses]. It’s an idea that we’re exploring.

“I think it’s innovative. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody. It reduces scattered camping and provides something that’s not there right now. We’re trying to do some good in a way that helps.”

Such a village could ease camping pressures on the Indian Creek corridor, which are increasing.

A document prepared by the Monticello Field Office as part of its resource-management planning process noted, in regard to Indian Creek, that “. . .recreational use has changed over the past decade. What was once a remote area with few visitors has now become an international rock-climbing destination. The rapidly increasing popularity of the area has severely increased the impact of humans on the corridor environment, and has created a demand for additional visitor services and facilities.”

In the fall and especially the spring, rock climbing may draw hordes to the area. In a 2002 article in Climbing, Amy Irvine described the scene: “40 cars are smashed into various small pullouts beneath Supercrack and Battle of the Bulge Buttress, and hordes of climbers stand like rush-hour crowds on subway platforms, jostling each other for a burn on some of the world’s finest crack climbs. Across the road, toward Beef Basin, new campsites are scattered like buckshot across the desert floor. Late-risers cloister there, plunging French press pots and taping their hands for the day’s projects. Beyond them, a labyrinth of trails lead into the bushes and telltale piles of used toilet paper.”

Such crowding led the BLM to create a new Indian Creek Recreation Corridor Plan in 2005, and in 2008 the corridor was designated a BLM special recreation management area, Hoffheins said. Since then, more parking has been developed, and the BLM is currently improving a campground.

And for years the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute has worked with the BLM and the Dugout Ranch to preserve Indian Creek Canyon and mitigate recreational impacts. The institute has built several trails to popular climbing routes, Hoffheins said. He could not provide visitation numbers for Indian Creek, but said, “ We’re trying to get a handle on the amount of use nowadays with traffic counters and so forth.”

Hoffheins said he learned about the village plan while in an inter- agency meeting about a possible hut-to-hut system. “Somebody from the county or state mentioned this plan. I said I hadn’t seen anything and I would like to be kept informed because it does potentially affect BLM land.”

He said he recognizes that the BLM’s facilities in the area are “still on the rustic side” and that people might be interested in a more permanent structure. However, he said, there is nothing in the field office’s resource management plan that calls for a higher level of development for camping. “We may eventually get there,” Hoffheins said.

“I can tell you I have talked with the Park Service, extremely briefly. Our staff has mentioned that the Park Service has encouraged us to look at additional campground development in Indian Creek because of overflow camping out of the Needles District.”

The question of how much development to provide in the corridor is a delicate one. Many climbers do not want to see anything that would implement a fee structure for overnight stays, and those who love the area and its soaring views shudder at the thought of any type of structures cropping up along Highway 211.

The Nature Conservancy is watching the planning cautiously. In addition to managing Dugout as a working cattle ranch, TNC has launched the Canyonlands Research Center at the site, which offers facilities for scientists and students studying invasive species, climate change, grazing impacts, and other issues on the Colorado Plateau.

Sue Bellagamba, Canyonlands regional director for The Nature Conservancy, told the Free Press Sept. 17 that TNC “has not been contacted by San Juan County or the American Alpine Club regarding any proposed development on or near our Dugout Ranch property, so it’s difficult for us to have any real comment because we have not seen plans.”

TNC purchased the ranch in 1996 “to protect and conserve it,” including the viewshed, Bellagamba said. “We are opposed to any unnecessary developments in kind of a pristine area,” she said, adding, “I would hope as any good neighbor that somebody planning something in the area would contact both Heidi Redd and TNC.

“TNC always tries to work with people for a win-win situation, so I would like to see what they’re interested in and I would like to explain what we’re trying to do down there and see if there’s an opportunity to do something that meets both of our goals.”

Crane said he understands the need to balance development with respect for the area’s resources, as well as the character of the nearest community – Monticello.

Original plans for the village called for modest structures built of beetle-killed ponderosa pine, with solar panels so climbers could charge their devices, and water only for drinking and cooking – no showers.

“There’s a big concern about growth without dramatically changing the character of the community,” Crane told the Free Press. He is optimistic that a plan can be worked out that will prove beneficial to all concerned. “You can still benefit from tourism without changing the character of the stakeholders,” he said.

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From October 2014.