An employee of the Sand Flats Recreation Area (SFRA), works at the entrance booth. According to the SFRA Annual Report for 2013, the area has been self-sustaining for over 15 years and had over 100,000 visitors last year. [Photo by Lindsey Bartosh/Moab Sun News]

The Sand Flats Recreation Area (SFRA) Annual Report for 2013 was presented to the Grand County Council during the regular meeting on Tuesday, May 6. SFRA program manager Andrea Brand said a long-anticipated land swap between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Utah School Trust and Institutional Lands Administration (SITLA) has occurred and, as a result, the SFRA will move forward in 2014 with some new projects.

Started in 1995 by Craig Bigler as an AmeriCorps project, the SFRA provides a place for bicycle and motor-vehicle recreation as well as camping. In 1998, the BLM and Grand County created a partnership, similar to the Mill Creek Canyon area in Salt Lake City, to co-manage the area. BLM Recreation branch chief Rock Smith said the partnership has worked well for the area.

“The agreement was put in place to solve problems that uncontrolled visitor use in that area was creating for both entities,” Smith said. “The agreement has helped to foster a positive relationship between the county and BLM, and has been an asset to the community for many years. Because of this, the agreement has been maintained.”

Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said the arrangement has also been beneficial for the County.

“We’re always glad to see the reports from SFRA. They are a great example of a successful County/Federal partnership,” he said. “The numbers continue to reflect the popularity of the SFRA.”

All entrance fees paid by users to the SFRA are reinvested toward services and maintenance of the area. Last year, SFRA had three year-round employees, four seasonal workers, and two high school apprentices. Fees also cover educational displays, brochures and maps, as well as general upkeep of the area’s campgrounds, trails, fences and signs. The SFRA also pays $5,000 for administration duties conducted through Grand County and $10,000 to Grand County Search and Rescue.

During 2013, SFRA estimated 104,568 visitors. This number is up from the previous two years. According to the annual report, the SFRA has been self-sustaining for over 15 years and receives no federal or state taxes for operation. Last year, SFRA collected $342,076 in entrance fees and grants. Their expenses were about $311,314.

Brand also said a survey conducted of the SFRA use shows that most visitors are those who return to the area.

“About 70 percent of our visitors are repeat and most of them are coming from Colorado and Utah,” she said. “Most are coming to mountain bike and a very close second is the motorized, which has been growing. It is becoming almost 50-50.”

For the 2014 calendar year, the SFRA will work on two projects. One project will be a basic seal coat and striping of the Hell’s Revenge parking lot. The toilet facilities at the lot are also planned to be repainted.

The other project will be the improvement and upgrading of the Fins and Things trailhead parking lot. Brand received grants she applied for in 2010 to upgrade both the Slickrock and Fins and Things parking areas. The Slickrock lot improvements were completed, which included adding a shade structure, new kiosks and signs, and painted toilets, but the Fins and Things project was postponed at the time.

“With the Fins and Things project, because (the parking lot) is sitting on state lands, we couldn’t build on it until the land swap,” Brand said.

The land swap between the State and BLM was signed on Thursday, May 8. Up until the transfer, the SFRA leased four parcels, almost 15 percent, of their 9,000 acres from SITLA. The $22,500 SFRA paid to SITLA for the lease will now be available for making more improvements to parking lots and campgrounds in the area, Brand said.

“All of our land up at SFRA is now BLM,” she said.

With the closing of the land swap, the Fins and Things parking lot project can now be completed during 2014. Pending completion of the engineering and surveying portions of the project and final approval from the Grand County Council, the project is expected to begin in July. Brand said the parking lot improvement should take about a week.

“It is going to be a parking lot like the one at Hell’s Revenge, but it won’t be paved,” Brand said. “It is going to be gravel and it is going to have two toilets.”

Smith said with the increase in visitation to the area each year, the parking structure will help with safety and sanitation issues.

“By expanding and formalizing the parking, there will be controlled parking for vehicles and trailers that currently overfill existing parking areas and sometimes block roads,” he said. “There will be a restroom added to the site also to help with sanitation issues.”

Funding for the project will come from a grant with the Utah State Parks and Recreation through the Federal Recreation Trails Program and the SFRA. The project is estimated to cost about $76,340.

Brand said the SFRA has also been in discussion with the BLM about plans for the area once the land swap occurred. She said the SFRA, BLM, SFRA Stewardship Committee, and Grand County, will look to see what kinds of improvements and changes are needed.

“We’re really going to look at the whole area and the carrying capacity of the existing entrance, the road, the resources – the visitor experience.” she said.

Currently, SFRA has 120 camp sites, which is more than both Canyonlands and Arches national parks combined. One of the improvements to the area that Brand and the BLM are looking at is increasing the number of camp sites to the area.

“Visitation to the Moab area continues to increase, leading to more demand for developed camping, particularly close to town,” Smith said. “Increasing the number of sites at Sand Flats could help with this issue. To date, there have only been conceptual discussions between the county’s Sand Flats staff and the BLM regarding new camping opportunities. More detailed site visits, engineering studies and design work will be needed.”

Year-end report presented; BLM/State land-swap will allow new projects to proceed

“With the Fins and Things project, because (the parking lot) is sitting on state lands, we couldn’t build on it until the land swap.”