Visitors lined up to pay entrance fees at Arches National Park on Wednesday, Oct. 25. Individual city council members may agree with some of the concerns that their counterparts from Grand County brought up in a letter to park officials about separate proposals to manage visitation at Arches, but a majority of them are not ready to sign off on the letter. [Moab Sun News file photo]

The Moab City Council’s name appears prominently in a “potential joint” draft letter that raises concerns about the “potential negative impacts” of separate proposals to manage visitation at Arches National Park.

But while individual city council members may agree with some of the points that their counterparts from Grand County brought up in the letter, a majority of them are not ready to sign off on it.

“We just couldn’t come to a quick consensus,” Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd told the Moab Sun News.

The Grand County Council voted 6-0 on Monday, Nov. 27, to approve the “potential joint letter” to park officials that cites concerns from both entities; Rory Paxman was absent from the meeting.

The concerns center around Arches National Park’s proposal to implement a reservation-based entry system during peak visitor hours from March through October, as well as a separate proposal to adopt a $70 peak-season entrance fee at Arches.

“Grand County and (the) City of Moab are concerned with the potential negative impacts of restrictive measures to limit visitors with substantial fee increases and a hard cap of visitation during the peak of our annual tourism cycle,” the draft letter says.

It goes on to urge National Park Service officials to consider an “enhanced and more collaborative level of problem solving and issue mitigation” on issues that affect local residents and the economy.

“Continued collaboration with the Park service on local economic and traffic issues is a priority for Grand County and (the) City of Moab,” the letter says.

Grand County Council member Curtis Wells, who drafted the proposed letter, said that city officials will “most likely” provide some feedback on it. However, he noted that the city council had not given the letter a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down as of Nov. 27.

“So I don’t know how that affects the action item today,” Wells said. “This may very well just be a Grand County letter.”

Moab City Council members Kalen Jones and Rani Derasary confirmed that they disagree with some of the letter’s main points.

“I can’t support it,” Jones told the Moab Sun News on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

“It’s not something really that I felt good about signing on to right now,” Derasary added.

While they have different perspectives about the proposed fee increase, both Jones and Derasary said they favor the idea of a reservation-based entry system.

During the peak visitor season, the proposal 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 an attempt to address the impacts that park officials tie to growing visitor numbers. (Under the agency’s proposal, visitors could continue to enter the park without reservations before 7 a.m., or after 6 p.m.)

“I think that timed entry is the way to go,” Jones said. “I think there’s limits to growth when it comes to limited natural resources … At a certain point, you have to draw the line (so visitors are) not just experiencing crowds.”

Derasary said that while the reservation system is not ideal, it would deal with the issue of overcrowding, and Arches’ capacity to handle growing numbers of visitors.

“Unfortunately, the reservation system is the only thing I’ve seen that would concretely address all of that,” she said.

Knuteson-Boyd, too, said she tends to support the plan, based on her experience visiting Glacier National Park last summer during the middle of the week.

“It was so packed – it was literally bumper to bumper,” she said. “It took three hours to go 50 miles. We could not have gotten out to hike because there was so much traffic.”

Before her trip to Glacier, she said, she thought that the reservation system would just ruin visitors’ experiences.

“(But) that experience changed my mind,” she said.

However, Knuteson-Boyd said she is concerned that the park is proposing to implement the reservation system and the fee increase at about the same time.

If that happens, she said, it may discourage visitors from coming to Moab and lead them to go elsewhere – at least initially. For that reason, she said, she would like to see the agency take a more incremental approach toward the fee increase.

County seeks greater collaboration with park service

Wells said he believes that county officials should be more involved in the park service’s review of issues that affect the community.

“I think … really to me what was missing in this is that whether we like it or not, we are partners and have significant overlaps, and I kind of felt like this was driven more from one of our partners without a healthy level of collaboration, and so it kind of puts us in a tough position in forecasting of economic matters that are within our responsibility,” Wells said.

Knuteson-Boyd, for one, said she’d like to see local officials collaborate more often with National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon.

“I think we need to talk more with Kate in depth and find ways to solve issues that are unique or pertinent to Arches and Moab,” she told the Moab Sun News.

Grand County Council member Greg Halliday said he has the impression park officials have already made a decision, and they just notified the county that “this is what they’re going to do.”

That prompted Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann to jump into the conversation.

“That’s what we want to change,” McGann said.

Grand County Council member Evan Clapper said the National Park Service’s missions and goals just aren’t as broad.

“They’re really about the citizen visitor experience, and there’s no place in their equation for economic effects (on) the surrounding area, so I think (the draft letter) does a good job of saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget (that) your choices have more effects than inside the park boundaries,’” he said.

It’s his understanding, Clapper said, that the park is asking for public comment because it’s part of the agency’s routine process.

‘So it’s not set in stone … and whatever the reservation system looks like probably still has some flexibility, and everything needs to go up the flagpole in Washington, so these decisions aren’t being made here,” he said. “They kind of put out a suggestion and then it gets the rubber stamp in Washington.”

Wells said it’s unclear if the agency is in a position to modify any of its current proposals.

“I’ve had people say that that’s still undetermined, whether they’re going to retain the right or ability to flex the cap on daily visitation,” Wells said. “I don’t know that anybody knows for certain.”

City council members differ on fee plan

In one area of agreement, Derasary said she doesn’t think that the proposed fee increase, which would amount to a $35 hike per private vehicle, is justified.

“It worries me that that’s cost-prohibitive for a lot of people,” Derasary said. “You shouldn’t make a person on the street pay more when officials in D.C. are chipping away (at the National Park Service’s budget).”

Knuteson-Boyd said the proposed fee increase would not change the travel plans of a family from Europe. But for young people with families who might be planning a day trip to Arches, she said, the extra $35 amounts to the cost of breakfast, or a tank of gas.

Jones said it’s common knowledge that America’s national parks are underfunded, so for him, it makes sense to adjust entrance fees to meet their maintenance and staffing needs.

Besides, he said, visitors can purchase annual passes for $80 that grant them access to every National Park Service site in the country, and special passes are also available for seniors and U.S. military personnel, among others.

“People have all sorts of options for managing their costs if they want to visit these high-demand parks,” he said.

The deadline to comment on the proposed reservation system is Monday, Dec. 4, while residents now have until Friday, Dec. 22, to comment on the proposed fee increase.

According to an email from Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon, the county council’s draft letter will be submitted online before the Dec. 4 deadline. The county council is scheduled to consider a similar letter at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5, ahead of the Dec. 22 deadline.

At issue are a possible reservation-based system and higher costs to enter park

The reservation 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: 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.

To learn more about the peak-season fee proposal, or to comment on it, go to the PEPC website at: Written comments can be sent to: 1849 C St., NW, Mail Stop: 2346, Washington, D.C. 20240.