An Arches National Park Service ranger led two visitors through a tight section of the park's Fiery Furnace. As it hits the pause button on its previously announced decision to eliminate commercial guiding services in the rugged area, the park plans to increase the number of ranger-guided Fiery Furnace tours it offers, and decrease the number of visitors per tour. [Photo by Andrew Kuhn / Courtesy of the National Park Service]

Changes are in store for the Fiery Furnace area in Arches National Park, including new route signs, more conspicuous trail marking, and an increase in the daily number of hiking permits available to the public. The fate of commercial guiding services in the area remains to be determined, however.

National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon said that her agency will “hit the pause button” on the decision until the park can engage in further discussions with stakeholders.

Following the Southeast group’s mid-September announcement of its decision to stop issuing Commercial Use Authorizations (CUAs) for the Fiery Furnace as of Jan.1, 2017, local outfitters contacted state and federal lawmakers requesting intervention. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, quickly responded with a letter that urged the park to reconsider its decision.

In a written response to Chaffetz, Cannon said that the park will initiate an overall commercial use strategy as a long-term way to address CUAs and other commercial uses park-wide, and will work with the community and businesses closely in that effort.

Chaffetz, in turn, said he appreciates Cannon’s efforts to ‘hit the pause button’ on limiting commercial use permits.

“A successful solution to this issue can only be found with the input of local communities, stakeholders and businesses,” he said in a written statement. “I look forward to working together to find a long-term solution.”

Cannon said the previous decision to stop issuing the Fiery Furnace CUAs came in response to the rapid growth in outfitters who lead permitted hikes through the Fiery Furnace. That number has jumped from just seven commercial guide services as recently as 2009 to 88 today, and Cannon said last month that the trajectory is unsustainable, based on the fact that they’re competing for just 25 permits each day.

In 2015, 4,631 people went into the Fiery Furnace with a commercial guide, compared to 3,897 people between January and August of this year.

Some local outfitters have said they are frustrated by the lack of communication between the National Park Service and the Moab community and its small businesses. Although the Fiery Furnace hike is not as dangerous as other canyoneering routes in the area, guides provide a quality service there that enhances visitors’ experiences, Moab Cliffs and Canyons owner and manager Brett Sutteer said.

“It’s a little bit disappointing, because I think that there’s quite a few of us that take access into the Fiery Furnace pretty seriously and offer a pretty good program in terms of interpretation,” he said. “We go in with a backpack full of books.”

Local commercial guides take visitors to areas within the popular park destination not included in the ranger-guided hike, or known to most of the seasonal interpreters who guide in the Furnace as temporary AmeriCorps Student Conservation Association volunteers, Sutteer said.

Sutteer has lived in Moab for 30 years, and his family’s history in the region dates back to the original Mormon pioneers and the Ute Indian tribe, he said. He and his staff are able to include firsthand accounts of Moab culture and stories of Moab’s history they’ve gleaned from decades living here.

“The types of trips that we offer can sometimes far outweigh some of the ranger-guided hike interpretive trips that the park has put out there,” Sutteer said. “I really have questions as to why (NPS management) feels that a ranger-guided hike offers some sort of superior level of experience for the guests out there.”

The National Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group differentiates between “necessary” guiding services and those deemed simply “appropriate,” Cannon said. Concessions permits are granted to outfitters providing “necessary” services, without which visitors wouldn’t be able to experience park features. Commercial Use Authorizations are granted to all other commercial guides.

In addition to Arches National Park, the southeast group’s jurisdiction encompasses Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments. River guiding companies providing guided trips down the Colorado River in Canyonlands provide a necessary service, Cannon said. Guiding hikers in Arches National Park is considered an acceptable, but not a necessary, service, she said.

“Fiery Furnace is a really cool place, but with a reasonably well-marked route through it and some pre-instruction which we give with the orientation video visitors are required to watch, we feel that visitors are able to find their way and have a good experience in the park,” Cannon said.

In addition to more visibly marking the trail, the park service will increase the number of ranger-guided tours it offers, and decrease the number of visitors per tour, said Cannon. It will also increase the number of public permits available on a daily basis, by reallocating at least some of those that are currently reserved for commercial guides.

Changes in management could be a positive thing, Utah State Office of Recreation Director Tom Adams said. The department within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development wants to see public lands decisions made from the ground up, with input from the local community, he said, and it commends Cannon for opening the door to those conversations.

“We also want to make sure that we’re providing a great user experience,” he said, “because we want (visitors) to come back, and tell their friends.”

Local guides agree, and are frustrated that park officials don’t more readily open dialogue with them concerning decisions about permitting that will impact their businesses.

“The National Park System was designed specifically to have local people involved as a community, and get the local community involved in showing off their local treasures – in other words, guiding,” said Eric Odenthal, owner and manager of Moab-based Windgate Adventures. “There’s no sense of community here between outfitters and the park. We’re never included in discussions.”

The current strategic focus for management at Arches is planning transportation system updates, addressing how to feed traffic into the park in a way that spreads out the increased number of visitors throughout the day to ease congestion and improve visitor experience, Cannon said.

However, the management team recognizes that local outfitters are eager to discuss solutions to the Fiery Furnace conundrum, and the park will open conversation with outfitters “soon,” she said.

State officials, local businesses seek compromise to keep commercial guiding services

Fiery Furnace is a really cool place, but with a reasonably well-marked route through it and some pre-instruction which we give with the orientation video visitors are required to watch, we feel that visitors are able to find their way and have a good experience in the park.