A view The Three Gossips at Arches National Park. The park service is considering an idea to implement an advanced reservation system to enter the park. [Photo courtesy of Mike Coronella]

Moab business owners fear a backwards slide in the local economy if a proposal for an advanced reservation system to enter Arches National Park goes forward.

The Grand County Council postponed a discussion on Monday, March 5, on the parks’ reservation system proposal. The topic was added to the council’s agenda in light of the economic analysis released on Feb. 26 that says the system could cause up to a $22 million reduction in economic spending.

The economic analysis was completed by Chip Paterson, principal investigator of Industrial Economics, Inc. Paterson wrote that the Moab area could see a 5 to 10 percent decrease in visitation in the first year the proposed reservation system is implemented.

Brian Merrill, CEO of Western River Expeditions and the Moab Adventure Center, came to Moab in 1984 to work as a seasonal river guide. Like many local business owners in Moab, he has worked for decades to grow his business.

He said the proposed reservation system is “a big concern.”

“This year we are putting a big investment into expanding our operations,” he said. “If things start going backward, our timing is going to be bad. …We are building a new warehouse and a new employee housing facility, all on the assumption that business is strong.”

He acknowledged that Arches National Park is the area’s biggest draw for visitors.

“It’s the number one attraction and the number one reason people come here, particularly new people,” he said.

Local business owner Dottie Byrd has owned and operated The T-Shirt Shop for 37 years.

“It is insane of them thinking about doing a reservation system at Arches,” she said. “I think that’s crazy because all of us here in Moab who have been in the tourist business have been working our entire lives to get people to come here.”

She thinks a reduction in visitation and visitor spending in the local economy would cause “devastation to everyone in town.”

Grand County Council member Curtis Wells added the proposed reservation system as a topic to the council’s discussion agenda. Before the meeting, he said that local businesses are “not making a killing” and can’t afford to take a cut in revenue if visitation drops by the thousands. The park sees more than 1.5 million visitors annually.

“There’s no way it won’t be severely detrimental,” he said. “If local business owners can’t make their payments, some local businesses could face foreclosure.”

The National Park Service said in a press release on Feb. 26 that the proposed reservation system will not be implemented in 2019. But since the announcement in 2018 that it could be implemented in 2019, the uncertainty of the proposed system led some international tour companies to avoid booking trips to Moab in 2019, Paterson said.

Paterson wrote in his economic analysis that Moab could see a drop in as many as 30,000 international visitors in 2019.

Elaine Gizler, executive director at the Moab Area Travel Council, said tour companies that book months and years in advance will not be able to book trips to Arches for 2021 without a definite outline of the park service’s plans.

“Tour bus operators are very nervous about the reservation plan,” Gizler said in an email to the Moab Sun News. “The tour companies must know now what the plan is for tourists going to Arches.

“If you create uncertainty, people are not going to come, and that’s what the park service has done,” Merrill said of the park’s proposed plan.

Proponents of the advanced reservation system say the system would reduce overcrowding in the park during peak visitation times at the height of tourist season. Arches National Park would become the first national park to require advanced reservations.

During the Grand County Council meeting on March 5, council said the discussion on the issue will take place at its regularly scheduled meeting on March 19.

Council members said Arches National Park Superintendent Kate Cannon is expected to attend the meeting. Cannon did not respond to calls and emails from the Moab Sun News requesting comment on the issue.

The park service intended to host an open house on April 4 on the proposal, but postponed the open house to a later date in the summer that has not yet been announced.

Wells said during the council meeting that he had spoken with Cannon recently, but that she had indicated that the economic analysis would not be made available until April. Wells said he reached out to Cannon again after hearing the analysis was released on Feb. 26 to invite her to the March 5 council meeting, but said he didn’t receive a response.

Cannon later contacted the council’s administrator to say that she could not attend the March 5 meeting, but would be able to attend the March 19 meeting and asked to be able to talk during the agency reports section of the meeting, Wells said.

Council member Mary McGann said the council thinks it is best to give Cannon the opportunity to address the council before the council has its discussion.

Wells encouraged the council to notice Cannon’s talk on its agenda as a formal discussion item so the public has notice.

“This is a big issue,” Wells said, saying that the community needs to be able to review the report ahead of the March 19 discussion. “I would like to give Kate the opportunity to present to us on March 19 and we can engage at that point.”

Both Merrill and Byrd said it is important for the community and park service to consider other options as solutions to the overcrowding, long lines and packed parking lots in Arches National Park.

“We completely see the crowding issues and why they’re motivated to do it, but at the same time, the sentiment that we just need to lock this place up — I think a reservation is going to go along way to discourage people from coming here — we don’t agree with,” Merrill said. “They’ve talked about the shuttle system in the park, but it seems like conversations about those types of systems don’t go anywhere.”

Michael Liss, a Moab resident and chair of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee, is an outspoken critic of the proposed reservation system. In response to the economic analysis released on Feb. 26, he penned a letter to the National Park Service’s regional director emphasizing the need for a shuttle system. He said the Moab transit committee is traveling to Springdale and Zion National Park on March 19 and will report on its findings during its March 28 public meeting.

Merrill said he thinks everyone in the area needs to learn more about the proposed reservation system and how it would work before it’s put into place by the park service.

“Business is good. We’ve been through up-cycles and down-cycles. It seems like there is pressure on to artificially create a down-cycle now,” he said.

“For the park service to interfere that way is just beyond my wildest dreams,” Byrd said. “The park service is the hardest federal agency to work with in Moab and Grand County.”

“We completely see the crowding issues and why they’re motivated to do it, but at the same time, the sentiment that we just need to lock this place up — I think a reservation is going to go along way to discourage people from coming here — we don’t agree with.”

Study reveals potential loss to business revenue of up to $22M, economist says; Council plans discussion at March 19 meeting