Growth in tourism has outpaced improvements to national park infrastructure, and the Grand County Council is urging Utah Senator Orrin Hatch to place a high priority on funding for expanding services in Arches National Park.
Council members approved sending a letter to the senator by a vote of 4-1 at a meeting held on Tuesday, July 21. Chris Baird, Ken Ballantyne, Mary McGann and Jaylyn Hawks approved the letter, while Lynn Jackson opposed. Rory Paxman and Elizabeth Tubbs were absent.
Council member McGann, said during the discussion that it was an important issue for the community and that the county should support additional funding for the parks.
“I see it as something to support our economy,” she said.
The letter, co-drafted by council chair Elizabeth Tubbs, Moab Area Travel Council Director Marian Delay, and Grand County Administrator Ruth Dillon, says that inadequate funding for infrastructure has caused safety issues and contributed to “unpleasant” visitor experience. The letter seeks funding for additional seasonal staff, alternative transportation, and support for long range planning.
The letter also expresses support for Southeast Utah Group Park Superintendent Kate Cannon.
“We support our local park superintendent and ask that our congressional delegation do the same, particularly where park funding is at the heart of the matter,” the letter states.
Jackson said the letter was a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“I came out of the federal system,” Jackson said. “Throwing more money at them is not the solution. I don’t think this letter is something that we should be doing.”
The letter was written at the request of the executive director of the Garfield County Office of Tourism in response to a June 18 meeting in Richfield, Utah that was attended by state and regional travel council officials, congressional representatives, park service superintendents, and city and county officials from the communities surrounding Utah’s five national parks.
The focus of the meeting was to address concerns related to congestion and increased visitation as a result of marketing, specifically the Utah Office of Tourism’s “Mighty 5” national parks campaign which began in the spring of 2013.
Tubbs, who attended the meeting, told the Moab Sun News that, “While we have seen an increase in tourism, partially prompted by an increase in resources put toward marketing at all levels, there has been no match in the resources put toward managing the associated issues.”
A similar meeting was held in Grand County on June 30, and focused on congestion issues specifically related to Arches.
Arches visitation increased by nearly 20% in 2014, jumping from just under 1.0 million annual visitors to 1.2 million. Year to date for 2015 has seen an additional increase of 15% for Arches, and 17% in Canyonlands. And on Memorial Day of this year, the Utah Highway Patrol closed the entrance to Arches due to traffic that was backed up for half a mile on U.S. Hwy.191.
How to deal with congestion in Arches has been a discussion for several years. In 2009, a shuttle system into the park was proposed and studied but was ultimately deemed to costly.
For the past year, park service officials have been taking input from business owners, public officials, and members of the local community in order to come up with solutions and on July 20, they released a range of options for public comment in order to develop a Traffic Congestion Management Plan for Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Solutions gathered during the informal scoping period include paving more parking lots and roads, adding additional entry stations, and the development of more picnic areas to aid in dispersing crowds. Other ideas include site-specific reservations as well as a timed-entry system for gaining access to the park.
Park superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group, which includes Arches and Canyonlands, Kate Cannon said that “solutions vary in scale, but that we have to find solutions that fit the scale of the problem.”
“We want to sustain visitor experience, and maintain the quality of the park they came to see,” she said.
The letter to Senator Hatch concurs that maintaining a positive visitor experience, while mitigating the impacts of increased visitation is the ultimate goal.
“I personally don’t see our current “tourism” boom as a problem and don’t see this letter as an attempt to curb that trend,” Tubbs said. “We want to be partners with the Parks in working to resolve the issues and create a safe and enjoyable environment for our visitors and residents.”
McGann said that it will take some creative problem-solving, as well as an increase in funding to be able to continue to offer people a positive experience.
“Arches is a land of wonder which draws people from all over the world and that is vital to our economy,” she said. “Asking Senator Hatch to support us by lobbying for greater funding for Arches is a responsible action for the Grand County Council to take.”
Congestion and inadequate infrastructure are primary concerns
“While we have seen an increase in tourism, partially prompted by an increase in resources put toward marketing at all levels, there has been no match in the resources put toward managing the associated issues.”
“Throwing more money at them is not the solution. I don’t think this letter is something that we should be doing.”