A line of Jeeps and cars wait to enter the Sand Flats Recreation Area on Friday, March 29. A group of 4-wheel drive enthusiasts are ready to play on the Fins and Things trails as apart of Jeep Safari's planned treks. [Kristin Millis/ Moab Sun News]

Last week’s Jeep Safari was one of Grand County’s first big tourist events of the season. The event’s participants traveled from across the country and the globe to come together and 4-wheel through Grand County’s stunning scenery.

But the event is also representative of one of the principal challenges in Moab’s tourism industry – balancing enjoyment and economic gains with conservation to ensure that the area remains beautiful.

This year marked Jeep Safari’s 47th year. The event has grown from humble roots into the biggest 4-wheeling event in the country, said Doug McElhaney, the vice president of Red Rock 4-Wheelers, the club running the event.

Over the event’s nine days roughly 1,500 Jeepers drove the 30 official trails.

Over the last 15 years the number of participants in Jeep Safari has remained fairly constant. From 1996 to 2011 the number of participants peaked in 1998 with 1,730 people. The lowest year was in 2005, with 1,292 Jeepers, said Katie Stevens, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the government organization that permits and oversees the event.

Last year’s safari, which was held in April, brought in 1,422 people, Stevens said.

During that month Grand County and Moab collected $185,009 in sales tax and $245,869 in Transient Room Tax (TRT).

Though the numbers for this year have yet to be calculated, Red Rock 4-Wheelers believes that they will be similar to last year’s.

What the club does know is that this year’s Jeep Safari had 12 more vendors than last year’s, bringing the total to 158 vendors.

“The vendor parts look really good. We are definitely better than last year,” McElhaney said.

While there may be more vendors spending more money this year, some hotels in town have noticed a slight drop in the number of guests compared to last year.

Though all the rooms at La Quinta Inn Moab were filled up for Jeep Safari, there were less people staying in them, said Marlene Rodriguez, the hotel’s general manager.

Rodriguez believes that this is partly due to the fact that spring break and Jeep Safari were on the same week last year. However, this year’s reservations for the week after the event are higher than last year.

“Last year‘s Jeep Safari was just a phenomenal year for us,” she said.

Restaurants seemed to do as well or better during Jeep Safari than in previous years.

“On Monday (Mar. 25) I was a little concerned but (since then) it’s looking like a full load to me,” said Geoff Thomas, the owner of the Moab Diner.

“We are much busier than last year,” agreed Kim Sommer, a manager at the Moab Brewery.

With around 1,500 people registered for the Jeep Safari each year, Red Rock 4-Wheelers and the BLM have been working to minimize the impact of the event on the environment over the last several years.

The current Jeep Safari permit, which the BLM issued in 2006, includes “pages and pages of stipulations” to help ensure Jeepers act responsibly, Stevens, of the BLM, said.

One of the biggest changes in the 2006 permit was to give the Jeep Safari exclusive use of the event’s seven most popular trails (Behind the Rocks, Cliffhanger, Gold Bar Rim, Gold Spike, Moab Rim, Pritchett Canyon, and Poison Spider) during their rides.

Another major change was to make Hell’s Revenge, Steel Bender, and Kane Creek trails one-way. This was done because the BLM notice that a large portion of the damage being caused came from one vehicle pulling off to let another pass going the opposite direction.

Stevens believes that these new regulations have made a big difference.

“We have had hundreds of hours monitoring Jeep Safari and had very few problems,” she said.

“We’re pretty good partners with the local BLM,” said McElhaney. “Most of their requirements are common sense.”

Jeep Safari also worked with other organizations to help minimize the amount of waste created by the event.

“It used to be much worse because there haven’t been strict controls,” said Sara Melnicoff, the director of Moab Solutions. “When you put some gentle controls then you are sending a really good message.”

For the last ten years Moab Solutions has been trying to send those signals by organizing daily clean ups and putting out recycling bins on Potato Salad Hill near Mill Creek Canyon, a location popular with Jeepers but not officially part of Jeep Safari.

This year they did clean ups every morning and put out more recycling bins than ever before, Melnicoff said.

Moab Solutions works with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, the Grand County Solid Waste Special Services District, the BLM, Grand County Trail Mix (a Grand County sponsored committee), the State of Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), and the off-road group, Rocky Mountain Extreme, to “maximize recycling and minimize waste and damage during Jeep week,” according to the Moab Solutions website.

“I have noticed a lot more focus on recycling (this year),” said Brian Nathan, Jeep’s chief engineer for the Cherokee model.

Melnicoff CQ hopes to the clean ups of Potato Salad Hill will act as an example and get other groups to start adopting and taking care of sections of trail.

“A very small percentage of people go off trail. The same with litter,” Melnicoff said. “(But) I’m not going to kid you and say the problem has been solved.”

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office assists by partnering with Moab Solutions for recycling and with Rocky Mountain Extreme in providing mobile dumpsters for trash. Deputies were also at Potato Salad Hill throughout each day of this year’s event to encourage people to clean up after themselves, said Sheriff Steve White.

Red Rock 4-Wheelers hands out burlap trash bags for Jeepers to put on the backs of their vehicles during the rides. Desert Rat Off-Road and Truck Centers sponsors the bags and encourages people to pick up any trash they see along the way.

“It seems to work. I see a lot of them hanging off vehicles coming back in off the trail and they look like they have a lot of (garbage) in them,” said Rex Holman, the treasurer for Red Rock 4-Wheelers.

Holman also believes that many of the people, vehicles and impacts that residents noticed during the event were not actually associated with Jeep Safari.

“I would suggest at least 50 percent or more of the vehicles in Moab (last week) have nothing to do with Jeep Safari,” he said.

This is because any vehicle on a trailer is probably not in the event, as one rule of Jeep Safari is that every vehicle must be able to legally drive from the hotel parking lot to the trailhead.

This and other rules have been put in place by the event to try to minimize the social and environmental impacts of Jeep Safari.

Red Rock 4-Wheelers has put a concerted effort into making Jeep Safari a more family-friendly and less party-oriented event in the last few years. And it seems to be working.

“I think I’m seeing more families. I don’t see as much of the spring break crowd,” White said.

“It’s just so calm and subdued this year. It’s so different,” Rodriguez, of La Quinta Inn Moab, said.