Moab Chamber of Commerce President and Emery Telcom COO Jared Anderson raised concerns at the Moab City Council’s Feb. 27 meeting about Arches National Park’s proposal to adopt a reservation-based entry system. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Supporters and opponents of a proposed reservation-based entry system at Arches National Park during peak season will have at least one more chance to tell the Moab City Council how they feel about the idea.

The council voted 3-1 on Tuesday, Feb. 27, to table a resolution in support of the proposal; council member Kalen Jones voted against the majority, and Rani Derasary was absent from the meeting.

Council member Mike Duncan, who initially made a motion to approve the resolution, later came forward with a substitute motion to postpone consideration of the matter. The council’s final vote trailed a lengthy public comment period, when numerous residents, business owners and others spoke for and against the idea.

People who support the proposal say it would improve visitors’ experiences by reducing impacts from overcrowding at Arches’ parking lots, trailheads and most popular attractions, including Delicate Arch.

“It will certainly make visiting the park a great deal better,” said Moab resident Wayne Hoskisson, who sits on the city’s planning commission.

But opponents fear it would hurt hotels and other businesses that depend on park visitors, potentially leading to employee layoffs.

“It’s actually going to shrink our business and other businesses in the area,” said Moab resident Josh Green, who represented Moab Cowboy Country Off-Road Adventures.

If the National Park Service adopts the proposal, it would be implemented during peak visitor periods from March through October; it would not take effect before March 2019.

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.

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

Altogether, the agency received more than 400 comments on the plan, and once park service officials have sorted through them, Cannon expects that they could reach a final decision on the proposal in June.

With at least three months to spare between now and then, Cannon told the council that she would love to have a chance to clear up what she called “misunderstandings” about the proposal.

Traffic congestion an issue for many

The overall issue of traffic congestion in the community is a top concern of many residents with whom Duncan said he spoke as he campaigned door to door last year for his council seat.

If the park adopts the proposal, Duncan predicted that there would be a 10 percent drop in visitation each year. That’s not so bad, he said, considering that, by his estimates, the number of park visitors has been climbing by 20 percent annually for the past few years.

“So a 10 percent hit just moves us back about a year,” Duncan said. “That’s the way I read it.”

There would be a hit on businesses, he said. But Duncan, who believes the plan will make Moab a “better, more livable place,” said he thinks that business owners and managers will be able to cope with the change, and that business will “still be good.”

Jones pointed out that city officials have been engaged in an ongoing effort to manage tourist-related traffic congestion in the community.

“We can’t do it alone; we need to do it in partnership, and so I welcome the leadership that the park service has shown,” he said.

Moving forward, Jones said he expects that the agency will continue to listen to city officials and other stakeholders, while refining the system and continuing to look at other congestion management options.

Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said she tends to support the park’s proposal, albeit with some caveats.

“What I’m hearing is, people are worried about their business,” she said. “They’re fearful that things won’t go possibly as well as they have in the past few years. I think those people deserve to be heard a little bit more in depth.”

Since the agency is still reviewing public comments on the proposal, Knuteson-Boyd said there should be “absolutely no rush” to pass the council’s resolution.

“This is essentially a letter of support,” she said. “If we put this off two weeks or even a month, it doesn’t change anything that Kate is doing or the national park system is doing.”

But the delay would give residents a chance to come up with other ideas, she said.

“I think that sometimes we think that things are a good idea, and we don’t listen as long and as hard as we need to,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “I think that we can make some accommodation, and I think we can help people to feel like we listened to them more fully.”

Mixed reactions from business, community leaders

Moab Chamber of Commerce President and Emery Telcom COO Jared Anderson said it doesn’t seem as though there’s been any real effort to understand the implications of what the proposal could mean for local businesses.

He’s concerned, he said, that just one proposal has been presented, and that the agency’s process hasn’t been thoroughly vetted. But Anderson welcomed the opportunity to sit in on another public meeting with Cannon.

Grand County Republican Party chair and local hotel manager Jeramy Day said he’s worried that a single entity which does not answer to the local electorate can do “whatever it wants” to control Moab’s economic destiny.

“The problem is … where does it stop?” he asked.

City officials should commit funding for an economic impact study, Day said, if they aren’t convinced that the plan would have negative impacts on Moab’s economy.

“If you don’t believe that’s going to happen, prove it,” he told the Moab Sun News.

Moab’s hospitality industry would likely bounce back if the reservation system is implemented, he said, but perhaps only if visitor marketing efforts micro-targeted utility-terrain vehicle (UTV) riders and other off-road recreationists.

Conversely, Western Spirit Cycling Adventures CEO and Public Land Solutions Managing Director Ashley Korenblat said she’s excited that Moab could be on the cutting-edge of new technology to manage outdoor recreation assets.

A reservation system would provide future park visitors with certainty, she said, noting that it would not affect tour bus operators or businesses that have commercial use authorization permits. What’s more, Korenblat said, 25 percent of reservation slots would be available to visitors at the gate on the same day – or the day after – which would address concerns about impacts on tourists who showed up without planning their visits in advance.

Grand County Democratic Party chair Kevin Walker said he doesn’t think that anyone would seriously dispute that many park visitors are currently forced to search for available parking spaces during peak visitor periods.

The proposal, he said, would help even out the load of visitors.

If it’s adopted, Walker said, predictions of “gloom and doom” aren’t plausible at all: Visitor numbers would only drop to levels from four years ago.

“It’s not like Moab was a ghost town in 2014,” he said.

Officials hear from business owners, citizens about proposed reservation system

What I’m hearing is, people are worried about their business … They’re fearful that things won’t go possibly as well as they have in the past few years. I think those people deserve to be heard a little bit more in depth.