Rappeling in Arches

Arches National Park announced their new management plan for climbing and canyoneering Jan. 13. The new plan implements a registration system and limits group sizes to mitigate the effects of increased use as the popularity for both activities continues to grow.

As more people participate in these previously unregulated activities, the signs of their impact have become more noticeable, such as trampled vegetation, social trails to the same areas, grooves in rocks and hardware left on routes, said Trisha Ortiz, a science technician for Arches National Park.

“The activities were unregulated for so long that the park had no idea where people were going and the extent of their impact,” Ortiz said.

To study the situation and evaluate potential management strategies, the National Park Service developed an environmental assessment (EA). Arches National Park superintendent Kate Cannon presented the EA and three management plan options to the public for review and comment in June 2013.

The management alternatives the park considered varied from taking no new action, to taking minimal action that focused on educating the visitors so they could manage their own impact, to actively managing and monitoring the activities.

The National Park Service chose the third.

The new management plan is designed to limit user impact and also create a source of data the park can use to monitor climbing and canyoneering user numbers and locations.

“We want to stay as light on the land as possible and not change a whole lot out there. For example, if it seems like people are staying in a wash system or on the rocks, if there’s not a lot of impact on the resources, then we’ll leave it as such,” said Sabrina Henry, environmental protection specialist for the park.

Otherwise, the park will delineate and maintain trails. However, they will use cairns and signs only if needed for safety or to protect resources.

A free self-registration system will soon be online for climbers and canyoneers to use.

“The permit data is twofold,” Henry said. “It’s to capture use numbers and also to make sure that people get the messages we want them to have to make sure people are safely recreating as well as protecting the resources out there.”

While the climbers are highly encouraged to use the system, canyoneers will be required to register for their trips.

“We recognized that the most popular rock climbing routes are in what we call the ‘front country’ areas we can visually observe when we drive around. Whereas the canyoneers go through very sensitive areas in the backcountry where we can’t see, so there’s of more of a need to get backcountry data from the registration system,” Henry said.

For both activities, group sizes are now be limited to five persons for rock climbing and ten for canyoneering in all areas other than the Fiery Furnace and Lost Spring Canyon routes, which will be limited to six persons per group. Canyoneers are also still required to obtain a permit at the park’s visitor center for the Fiery Furnace.

Visitors are allowed to establish new routes, but cannot install new fixed gear without a special use permit. This permit is now free, though the National Park Service may charge a cost recovery fee in the future if deemed appropriate.

To help assess the suitability of any proposed new fixed gear installations or the replacement of old gear, the park will actively seek input from the climbing and canyoneering community.

“We’re hoping, as part of this effort, to create a type of proactive stewardship program and have the climbers and canyoneers be our eyes and ears to help us keep track of what’s going on and what’s needed,” Henry said.

The park hopes to have a system for feedback and input on its Web site before April 1.

Regardless of the feedback, however, the park will consider the preservation of its natural and cultural resources first, as it did when it closed a popular bouldering area near Hwy 191. Although the cultural resources were hard to see, the presence of rock art was confirmed by the park’s archeologist.

“If an activity threatens the integrity of a cultural resource, the National Park Service has an obligation to be proactive and protect these resources to prevent further damage as soon as possible,” the Climbing and Canyoneering Management Plan (CCMP) stated.

Similarly, the park has prohibited any climbing or canyoneering related activities on or using any arch with an opening greater than three feet, named or unnamed. This change may affect some canyoneering routes.

Much of the feedback received during the comment period was in support of allowing commercial guiding in the park.

Arches National Park previously allowed one commercial outfitter to run canyoneering trips in the park but has since prohibited all commercial climbing or canyoneering.

“Commercial guiding was not necessary to meet the public use and enjoyment of the park,” the CCMP stated. The CCMP also stated the national park setting wasn’t required due to the services and opportunities outside of the park.

Although the park received some comments expressing interest in BASE jumping, this activity now remains prohibited.

“If the park were to consider BASE jumping as a new visitor use activity, the park would first need to receive a proposal for this activity and then a planning process would begin to determine if BASE jumping is appropriate at Arches National Park,” the CCMP stated.

Slacklining and highlining, also remain prohibited within the park.

The public will be able to access a list of the new regulations for climbing and canyoneering on Arches National Park website by March. Other communication systems and media information the new management plan requires will be in place early this spring.

In the meantime, visitors are encouraged to check with staff at the park’s visitor center for up-to-date information.

“The bottom line is we want people to respect the resources and do it in a way that they can still enjoy the activity they want to do,” Ortiz said.

“The activities were unregulated for so long that the park had no idea where people were going and the extent of the impacts.” 

Park releases climbing and canyoneering management plan