Hikers wandered below Partition Arch on Saturday, Nov. 4. The nearby trail to Landscape Arch was already crowded with hikers, some of whom were walking their dogs in violation of park policy, while another hiker blasted a Coldplay song from a handheld radio. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Is a reservation-based entry system coming to Arches National Park during the busiest times of the year?

It’s a question that many local residents and business owners have either welcomed or rejected since National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon first floated the idea in late 2014.

Three years later, community members will formally have a chance to weigh in on the proposal: The National Park Service is now accepting public comments on a plan that would require visitors to book advance reservations in order to enter the park during peak hours between March and October.

Local residents and others can find out more about the proposal – and submit their written comments on it – during an open house on Thursday, Nov. 16, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Grand Center, 182 N. 500 West. Written comments will also be accepted through Monday, Dec. 4, and can be submitted online. (Editor’s Note: Please see below for a link to the agency’s planning website.)

Under the proposal, the agency would set a daily entrance cap of 2,006 vehicles between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. – when park visitation is typically at its highest – in order to address the impacts that park officials tie to growing visitor numbers.

“Outside that time frame, things would remain as they are now,” Cannon told the Moab Sun News.

A traffic count from June 2016 showed that an average of 444 vehicles entered the park either before or after those times. Cannon said that hundreds of people could still come and go during those off-hours if they didn’t make advance reservations.

“People could continue to freely enter and exit without reservations,” she said.

If the agency approves the proposal, it would be fully implemented no earlier than March 2019; online reservations would be available six months before the reservation start date, and could be made online or by phone via www.recreation.gov.

Grand County Republican Party chair Jeramy Day, who works in the local hospitality industry, believes the proposal runs counter to the agency’s mission to promote visitation. If it’s approved, he’s concerned that it would discourage tourists to the point that they will cross Moab off their lists of places to visit.

“When it ceases to be easy and accessible, people will stop coming,” Day said. “It worries me – especially after we decided that tourism would be our bread and butter.”

Day thinks that the plan could have devastating economic impacts on the community and the tourist industry, starting with newer, less-established hotels and other businesses that are almost entirely dependent on revenue from visitors.

“I think this is an extreme reaction, and that worries me,” Day said. “If it fails, the community’s going to hurt from it.”

Moab resident Hannah Marshall thinks the broader issue may be that the land can’t accommodate the sheer numbers of people who are “stomping” on it, and she’d be interested in seeing a study that examines any related ecological impacts.

“I think that this is a long time coming, but I worry what that means for local access and other parks,” Marshall said.

In the event that the park implements the system, Marshall is concerned that the change would simply shift visitors to other national and state parks in the area.

“If you turn people away from Arches, they’re going to go to (Canyonlands National Park’s) Island in the Sky or Dead Horse Point (State Park),” she said.

Agency says congestion hurts visitors’ experiences at park

Cannon said that increased visitation is having effects on the park’s natural environment.

“But that’s not what prompted our action,” she said.

According to Cannon, the proposal aims to address vehicular traffic and parking congestion problems that affect visitors’ access and enjoyment, as well as resource conditions at the park.

Visitation to Arches has doubled in the past 11 years, reaching about 1.6 million visitors in 2016 – and up significantly from what had been a record 1.25 million visitors just three years ago, during the first 10 months of 2014.

During the high-visitation season from March through October, visitors routinely wait in long lines to enter the park. As the cars pile up behind the park’s two main entrance booths, congestion is often a problem at the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and the park entrance road, posing potential traffic hazards. When they finally get into the park, peak-season visitors typically circle around parking lots at popular trailheads in search of parking spaces – often in vain.

The agency’s overview of the proposal says the reservation-based system would give visitors certainty of entry, while reducing or eliminating long entrance lines. It would also spread visitation more evenly across the day, and improve the visitor experience by ensuring available parking space, the overview says.

“We’re after ensuring that we provide a good visitor experience for those who come,” Cannon said.

According to the National Park Service, the overall number of parking spaces at Arches has almost doubled since 1989, to 857 spaces. On any given day, the agency says, the park can generally accommodate 1,700 vehicles without overcrowding, but as visitor numbers have continued to rise over the past decade, Arches’ parking lots routinely fill up.

As far as local access goes, Cannon said that park officials are sensitive to residents’ concerns.

“We’ve been thinking about that a lot and we’re concerned about it, because we value our local residents who visit the park,” she said.

Cannon encourages local residents to review the plan at: parkplanning.nps.gov/EA_Arches_trafficcongestionmanagementplan, and take their time to read the complex 46-page document as they formulate any suggestions dealing with continued local access during the proposed reservation period.

“We’re looking for ideas, because we have to find a solution that’s legal and fair, but recognizes the different needs of local people,” Cannon said.

Heavy visitation drives away many local residents

As it is, many local residents like Marshall avoid the park altogether for much of the year, venturing south to less-visited places such as the recently declared Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County.

“Personally, I don’t go to Arches much because it’s so crowded,” Marshall said. “… I tend to stay away unless I’m with family who are visiting, or it’s the off-season and I’ll go by myself. But during tourist season? No way.”

Local resident Karen Feary also tends to steer clear of Arches during the peak tourist season, unless visiting family members happen to be in town.

Moab’s visitor season grows longer each year and now runs from February to November, she said, and something needs to be done to address the problems with congestion.

“We’re going to have crowds earlier and later in the year,” Feary said.

Feary, for one, thinks the reservation system is preferable to an unrelated proposal to increase entry fees at Arches during a five-month peak visitor period to $70 per private vehicle. (Annual passes that allow visitors entry to every National Park Service site in the country are still available for $80; lifetime senior passes are also available.)

“At least with a reservation system, you can still get in,” Feary said.

On the other hand, Vivian Krakowski of Good Spirit Lake, Saskatchewan, said that she is more receptive to the idea of paying the proposed $70 entrance fee.

“I’d rather pay (a higher entrance fee) than not be able to get in,” she said. “Because you wouldn’t want to drive all this way, get a hotel room and not be able to get in.”

Krakowski and her husband passed through Arches on her way south to Yuma, Arizona, and although she arrived after the proposed peak season, she’s concerned that a reservation system would exclude visitors who are traveling on their own.

“We’re from Canada, and we probably wouldn’t know about that, so you’d get here and you wouldn’t be able to get in,” she said.

Visitor Becky Butkus of Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she has no interest in coming to the park during the peak tourist season. But how would she feel if – hypothetically speaking – she changed her mind, and then found that she needed an advance reservation?

“I would not be happy,” Butkus said. “We’d drive all this way, but we can’t get in?”

Tommy Doggett of Houston said he can see a need for the proposed reservation system, envisioning how “crazy busy” the park can be in the spring, summer and early fall months.

“(My wife and I) were so happy to get in this time of year,” he said. “We said, ‘Can you imagine what it would be like if we were here (during the height of the season)?’”

But Doggett’s wife Lori felt differently, noting that the couple had made a last-minute-trip to Arches. She suggested that the agency could implement the proposal on the busiest days of the year, such as Memorial Day weekend.

Either way, Lori Doggett said, good communication is key, and if the agency adopts the proposal, hotels and other businesses need to get the word out about the changes.

The plan and environmental assessment will be available for public review and comment through Dec. 4 on the NPS Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website at: parkplanning.nps.gov/EA_Arches_trafficcongestionmanagementplan.

Hard copies of the plan and environmental assessment will be available for review at the Southeast Utah Group Administrative Office at 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., the Arches Visitor Center and the Grand County Public Library, 257 E. Center St.

Written comments can also be sent to: National Park Service Southeast Utah Group, Attn: Planning and Compliance Coordinator, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab UT 84532. Mailed comments must be postmarked by Dec. 4.

Agency to hold open house on reservation plan at Grand Center on Nov. 16; Comments due by Dec. 4