Some small business owners in Moab say they are still thinking about what it will mean to the local economy if the National Park Service implements an advanced reservation entry system to access Arches National Park. And while others are on board with the idea, there are many who remain skeptical and oppose it.
The National Park Service has drafted a proposal to change the way visitors access Arches National Park by requiring advanced, online reservations. The system will not go into place in 2019, and an exact implementation date has not been announced. The current entry to the park does not require an advanced reservation, and anyone can enter the park on a first-come, first-serve basis. That doesn’t mean they’ll find a parking spot.
Arches National Park has about 800 parking spots, but saw 1.66 million visitors in 2018. The reservation system would ensure that parking lots don’t overfill beyond 85 percent of capacity and that visitors enjoy their experience without traffic congestion. It would limit the number of cars traveling into the park to around 2,000 per day.
But a recently released economic impact analysis says the reservation system could lead to slower economic growth, and some local business owners say they fear any drop in visitation could cause a backwards slide in Moab’s economy. This speculative negative impact to the local travel and tourism economy — providing the backbone of tax receipts for the city and county — is now being compared by some to the decimation the Moab economy saw when the decline of the local uranium mining industry caused homes to stand empty in the 1980s as people left.
The Moab Sun News reported on Feb. 28 and March 7 that the recently released economic analysis says imposing an advanced-reservation entry system at the park could lead to an $11 to $22 million reduction in economic spending with a 5 to 10 percent reduction in visitation.
The National Park Service (NPS) did not immediately clarify the results of the economic analysis when it included a link to the study in its February press release.
The NPS clarified on March 18 that the $11-22 million economic reduction is not emblematic of only Moab, but is an estimate for the reduction in economic spending across a 13-county, 60-mile radius around Moab. News organizations other than the Moab Sun News have imprecisely reported that it is specifically Moab’s tourism businesses that would see an $11-22 million reduction.
Speaking by phone on March 18, Marco De Leon, the National Park Service’s chief of public affairs for the Intermountain Region, clarified the point.
De Leon said the estimated $11-22 million reduction in economic spending is “relative to a future state” and said it means the economies in the 13 counties — some in Utah, some in Colorado — can expect to see slower growth over time due to the reservation system.
Lin Ottinger is a former Moab uranium prospector. He came to Moab in the 1950s and has seen the town’s local economy change throughout the decades. He started his local business in 1960, the Moab Rock Shop.
Ottinger, like other small business owners in Moab, said he has not heard from anyone at the National Park Service studying the Moab economy and what a reservation system could do to individual businesses.
He doesn’t think it matters if the $11-22 million reduction in economic spending is for Moab only or the 13-county region, and said that any reduction due to an advanced reservation system is going to hurt the local businesses the most.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It means we’ll go bankrupt, I guess.”
Ottinger said business has been going well in Moab, but many businesses do rely on visitors who trickle into town to see the arches, but who have no itinerary. An advanced reservation system could deter visitors who don’t make their travel plans months, or years, in advance. And, Ottinger said, there’s no way that the National Park Service knows how many visitors may be deterred.
“A lot of people wouldn’t come anymore,” Ottinger said. “They would bypass it and they would go on and say, let’s go on to another park, like Canyonlands, Zion or Bryce.”
Brendan Cameron, president of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber members do not have a full consensus on support for the reservation system so the chamber has not issued a public comment on the plan.
Cameron, the manager of a local grocery store in Moab, wrote a letter to the Grand County Council expressing his dismay for the reservation plan.
He said a majority of the money spent in Moab is coming from people who come to see Arches National Park.
“Anything that may deter folks from coming to stay and play here in Moab might hurt our business,” he said by phone to the Moab Sun News on March 19. “My goal is to keep our team here employed and work as many hours as they want to work and hopefully even hire more, but I can’t do that if we have a loss of sales.”
Like the Moab Chamber of Commerce, the Grand County Council has not come to a consensus on the issue, either.
Grand County Council member Curtis Wells has been the council’s most outspoken critic of the reservation system, but not because he doesn’t acknowledge the overcrowding and traffic congestion.
“There’s no question that the congestion in Arches is unhealthy for the park and for the economy,” Wells said in an email on March 19. “What I’m interested in is a fair review of alternative opportunities to reduce the friction and congestion in the park without closing the gates on public land within the park boundary.”
COMMUNITY POINTS TO A COMBINATION OF ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS
Ottinger is one of many Moab residents who says that he can see alternative solutions to the advanced reservation entry system. For him, the answer is to reopen a former entrance road at the park.
“It would be so easy to fix the old highway that went to the park when I came here in 1955,” he said.
He wonders why the park’s old dirt entry road closer to Interstate 70 has not been reopened to create a northern entrance.
“If they just pave the road, it comes right out at Balanced Rock,” Ottinger said. “The best way is to come in from the north, turn in near Willow Springs, pave that road. In a few weeks, they could have that road so people could use it. Jeeps use it now, there’s no steep grades. That would be the best way to fix it.”
That second entrance and exit point could allow for people to drive through the park to Interstate 70 without having to turn around and exit through the same way they came into the park.
“The county is currently hosting a public transit authority study committee that’s informed and engaged in transit systems for parks,” Wells said. “The road leading into the park from the north is a county road. I’m committed to having the county involved as a cooperating agency in this review process.”
Michael Liss is a Moab resident and member of the ad-hoc Moab Transit Authority Study Committee initiated by Wells. Liss is a proponent of a shuttle system in Moab that would transport visitors through the park.
He said the park service studied a voluntary shuttle system in 2012, but scrapped the idea.
“At the end they dismissed the idea and one of the reasons they gave is that it’s ‘too expensive,’” Liss said.
This led him to Springdale and Zion National Park this month to learn about the shuttle system in place at that park.
“I talked to the shuttle operator who has ran the shuttle for 19 years and talked with the head of maintenance, and it’s been an incredible success,” he said. “The only reason it happened — and this is the interesting part of the story — is because the superintendent of the park, Don Falvey, had this vision for a partnership that had never been done between a town and a park. He represented this visionary idea, and the mayor of Springdale, Phillip Bimstein, got on board with him and they decided to do it in the late 90s.”
Liss said that at that time, Zion was seeing 2.5 million visitors.
“I got involved because I understood that the only way this is going to happen is if it’s a partnership between Grand County and Arches National Park,” he said. “Nobody has gone down the middle and said, what’s a reasonable solution for all of these problems? For 20 years you have one side shouting ‘Growth!’ and one side shouting ‘No growth!’ We never go down the middle and say, ‘Let’s plan the growth.’”
Luming Yang, from College Park, Maryland, said on March 19 that she came to Moab to see Arches National Park.
She had not yet heard of the agenda to make an entry system to the park that requires advanced reservations to cut back on traffic congestion, but offered a comment on the idea.
“I think it’s kind of reasonable because we can control the tourism volume and you can make our tourism more effective,” Yang said.
Arches National Park Superintendent Kate Cannon spoke to the Grand County Council on March 19 at its meeting and shared her key points in a pre-written statement.
“We, the National Park Service, take the comments of our stakeholders and the public seriously and we continue to evaluate the feedback related to traffic congestion management planning at Arches National Park carefully,” Cannon said. “Given public comment, including public comment related to the recently released economic evaluation, the National Park Service is going to take a step back to reconsider all of our options to mitigate traffic congestion.”
She further clarified, “We also want to be clear that there are no plans to implement a reservation system for vehicle entrance to the park in 2019.”
Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond Books on Main Street, wrote a letter to the county council to consider, expressing support for the reservation system.
“Currently the park is over-run, there is no parking and visitors are frustrated,” Nettell wrote. “A reservation system will even out visitation and lead to better protection, and more enjoyment to visitors.”
In announcing that it is “taking a healthy step back” from implementing the reservation system this year, De Leon said the NPS is also expected to hold an open house in Moab on the matter sometime in the summer of this year. Right now, the NPS is collecting more information and comments.
De Leon said, “We want folks to feel like this is part of the process, we want to be responsive, we want to hear from the public and ideas that are better.”
Small businesses who fear bankruptcy point to alternative solutions for traffic congestion mitigation
“It means we’ll go bankrupt, I guess.”
– Lin Ottinger, Moab Small Business Owner