It costs more money on average to spend two hours inside a multiplex movie theater than it does to visit Arches or Canyonlands national parks every day for a full week.
But entrance fees at the two parks could more than double, under a proposal to raise more money for improvements, exhibits and other upgrades at the increasingly popular recreation areas.
The National Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group is proposing to raise private, non-commercial vehicle entrance fees from $10 to $25, although the $10 rate would remain in effect during off-peak visitation hours over a trial period.
The proposed fees, which would still cover entrances over any seven-day period, are part of a broader agency effort to boost funding for national parks, according to Arches National Park Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services Mary Wilson.
“This is a national initiative,” Wilson said Jan. 14. “This is something that the Washington office has asked us to do and to look at.”
Local residents and others will have a chance to weigh in on the proposal, or learn more about it, during a Jan. 29 open house from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Grand Center, 82 N. 500 West. The National Park Service is also accepting public comments on its proposal through Feb. 13.
Wilson plans to be there, and she hopes that others will show up, as well.
“I just encourage everyone who can to join us at the open house,” Wilson said.
Beyond the proposed fee hike for private vehicles, the agency’s proposal would boost entrance fees for motorcyclists from $5 to $20; bicyclists and pedestrians would pay an extra $5, or $10 total, to enter either one of the two parks.
In addition, an annual Southeast Utah Group pass to Arches and Canyonlands, as well as Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments, would increase from $25 to $50. Fees for camp sites at the two national parks would also go up by varying amounts, as would the costs for ranger-led tours or private permits to enter Arches’ Fiery Furnace.
However, before they settle on final numbers, Wilson said that agency officials want to hear what members of the public have to say about their plans.
“I’m sure there will be a wide range of ideas, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Wilson said.
If the National Park Service ultimately approves the increases, it would mark the first time that fees at either park have gone up since 1996.
The parks keep 80 percent of the revenues they generate, and Wilson said that extra money could go a long way toward improvements that benefit park visitors.
“That goes back to enhance the visitor experience at the parks,” she said.
In the past, revenues from entrance fees have been used to fund trail repairs, along with the installation of new vault toilets at Arches. Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky unit has spent its share of entry fee revenues on a photovoltaic solar system, as well as fire mitigation projects at backcountry camping sites.
Additional revenues could help Arches build new picnic facilities and a pathway that would connect the park’s visitor center to the nearby Moab Canyon bike path.
Canyonlands’ project wish list includes plans for new interpretive exhibits at the Island in the Sky visitor center, as well as upgrades to the main road at the park’s Needles District.
Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board member and Red Cliffs Lodge owner Colin Fryer says he’s fully behind the proposed increase for private vehicles, calling it “exceedingly reasonable.”
“I think it should be $50,” he said during the advisory board’s Jan. 13 meeting.
Arches reservation idea comes under fire
Although he supports the proposed fee hikes, Fryer is vehemently against an unrelated idea that National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon previously shared with the advisory board.
During its November 2014 meeting, Cannon said that Arches officials are considering the possibility of implementing a reservation-based entry system at the park to address concerns about overcrowding.
At the time, Cannon emphasized that park officials were in the early stages of discussing the idea, and if they decide to pursue it, she vowed that the agency will go through a detailed and public planning process.
Since 1989, park officials say that the number of parking spaces at Arches has increased by 93 percent, and additional improvements designed to reduce traffic congestion are in the works. This summer, for instance, parking spaces at the Wolfe Ranch trailhead near Delicate Arch will grow by 110 percent.
However, Cannon said the steady increase in visitation is outpacing the park’s ability to manage impacts related to growing congestion.
The number of park visitors hit the 1 million mark for the first time in 2010, Cannon said, and it reached an estimated record of 1.25 million during the first 10 months of 2014.
Cannon declined to respond to Fryer’s criticisms of the reservation idea.
“At this point, we’re in the business of gathering ideas,” Cannon said. “We’re not in the business of arguing for or against them at this point.”
Wilson, meanwhile, noted that the talk about a reservation-based system is just one of many ideas that is currently out there for public discussion.
“This is not something that we’ve decided on,” she said. “We’re just going out to get ideas.”
If Fryer has any say in the matter, it will jettison that particular idea entirely.
It’s not up to Cannon or her staff, he said, to set the agenda.
“Their main job is not to protect the resource; their main job is to make sure the resource is available to the public,” Fryer said.
Looking at other potential solutions, Fryer ruled out the possibility of implementing a shuttle system, based on the long distances between the park’s visitor center and its main attractions.
“These things are really spread out. It’s not an easy thing to run a shuttle with, and the cost would be immense,” he said.
Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay pointed out that past studies found a shuttle system would carry additional costs. If the park built shuttle stops, it would likely have to build shade structures, as well. Drinking water fountains would also be necessary, and if people are drinking water as they’re waiting for shuttles, it stands to reason that there would be a need for additional restroom facilities, DeLay noted.
Fryer said he has a simple solution to address Arches’ most pressing problems with overcrowding: The park service, he said, should build new gravel overflow parking areas near the Delicate Arch trailhead, Windows and Devil’s Garden areas.
“Parking lots are the big savior,” he said.
In addition, he suggested that the park could direct visitor traffic to less well known areas beyond Delicate Arch, The Windows or Devil’s Garden.
“I think we can spread stuff out,” he said.
Cannon said that any solution the agency comes up with will likely include a number of steps to mitigate the impacts of overcrowding. That solution, she said, should have the broadest possible appeal.
“We want to find a solution that actually works for everybody,” she said.
Agency plans Jan. 29 open house at Grand Center
How to comment on proposed fee increases
The National Park Service is seeking public comment on a proposal to raise entrance, campground and Fiery Furnace fees at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and input regarding strategies to manage vehicle congestion.
Comments regarding these fee increase proposals may be submitted electronically on the agency’s Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/arch_fee_increase; or at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/cany_fee_increase.
Written comments can also be mailed to: National Park Service, Southeast Utah Group, Attn: Planning and Compliance Coordinator, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd, Moab, Utah 84532. Faxed comments may be sent to (435) 719-2300. The deadline for comments on the proposed fee increase is Feb 13.
Officials say that feedback from these comments will determine how, or if, fee increases will be implemented.
The park will also host an open house on Jan. 29 at the Grand Center, 82 N. 500 W. in Moab. The public is invited to stop by any time between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. that day to gather information, ask questions and submit comments.
In conjunction with the public meeting, staff members at Arches National Park are seeking public feedback on vehicle congestion management planning for the park.
For more information about congestion issues and possible management strategies, call Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon at 435-719-2101, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.