Arches National Park Ranger MacKenzie Lindley greeted visitors to the newly reopened park. [Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Arches National Park reopened on May 29, unlocking the gates to begin letting in visitors at 6 a.m.

By 9:10 a.m., the gates were closed due to overcrowding.

That same day, the acting Superintendent of the Southeast Utah National Parks group, Kayci Cook, met online with the Grand County Council, Moab City Council and Castle Valley Town Council to discuss the National Park Service’s phased reopening of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Strategies on how to limit overcrowding within parks have long been debated, but are seeing new attention in light of public health recommendations to limit the spread of COVID-19.

A timely proposal

Cook said that the NPS is predicting an increase in domestic tourists to be visiting parks this summer, perhaps enough to make up for the lack of international travelers.

“Visitors are interested in road trips because they can travel in their own vehicles in which they feel safer, and the places they want to go are open areas like national parks,” Cook explained.

Cook further stated that on the very first morning Arches reopened, rangers saw license plates from as far away as New York.

The May 29 joint meeting largely focused on strategies to minimize overcrowding in Arches National Park, including a temporary timed entry program to address the busiest hours.

The program would not limit the total number of visitors in Arches, but require visitors make a reservation for entry during peak hours. Entry into the park outside of these hours would continue to be unrestricted.

Visitors would acquire permits on, where some permits would be available far in advance (one to three months), while others would be opened up only two days in advance for last-minute visitors. The program would not cost visitors additional fees; instead, the program would be covered as part of the current seven-day pass cost. Passes such as the annual pass or senior pass were not addressed during the meeting.

“This is an attractive thing because it would improve visitor experience,” said Cook. “It would be a more sure thing, that people wouldn’t risk the fact that they might have the gates closed as they’re getting close to the entrance station.”

Arches National Park, like other parks, closes its gates temporarily when the number of vehicles inside the park near the total number of parking spaces, as happened on May 29.

“This would sort of spread it out in a way that would also help visitors be more safe and they wouldn’t all be crowded at the same iconic locations,” she said.

Similar visitor access strategies are either in place or in the works for other National Park Service units. Rocky Mountain National Park recently adopted a similar system that will be implemented June 4, also through Rocky Mountain announced their parking will be limited to 60% of normal capacity. Yosemite is considering a ticketed-entry system in order to control the overall number of people in the park.

This temporary timed-entry program is part of a larger proposal that the National Park Service hopes will “facilitate visitation so visitors can have a reasonable opportunity to follow health guidelines and still ensure the health and safety of our local community and [NPS] staff.”

The temporary timed-entry program is phase two of this plan, with the initial opening being phase one. Details of any future phases were not discussed at the meeting.

The temporary timed-entry program would likely not be implemented until July, Cook said, as details are still being worked out.

Similar systems have been debated before

Problems with overcrowding in the parks have been debated for years, with proposals for shuttles, timed entry systems and other possible solutions meeting with heavy opposition. Now, with physical distancing measures becoming a public health issue due to the pandemic, some of these ideas are being tentatively put forward again.

Cook stressed that the proposal is intended as a temporary measure to address COVID-19 guidelines and safety practices and not intended as a long-term solution to deal with the overcrowding issues that have grown for the past few years.

Moab City Councilmember Mike Duncan suggested that they consider a form of this plan to address the more chronic seasonal overcrowding as a long term solution. He noted at the joint meeting that several years ago the National Park Service proposed a similar plan to alleviate traffic congestion.

In 2019, the National Park Service has drafted a proposal to change the way visitors access Arches National Park by requiring advanced, online reservations after years of development and public comment. The proposal met with opposition from local businesses who believed it would stall economic growth in the area and the plans were shelved.

Support from Moab, Castle Valley and Grand County officials

The Castle Valley Town Council approved a recommended joint letter supporting the visitor access strategy proposed by the National Park Service for Arches and Canyonlands. The Grand County Council and Moab City Council approved the letter as well, 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. Grand County Councilmember Curtis Wells and Moab City Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton from Moab voted in opposition.

On a call with the Moab Sun News, Guzman-Newton clarified her opposition.

“I feel like it’s super imperative not to have restrictions on the National Park Service right now given the economic situation we are in with COVID,” Guzman-Newton said.

“I understand the concerns of protecting staff and customers,” she said, “and we’ve all had to come up with ways to protect our employees, but I feel like the reaction from the National Park is out of proportion.”

Multiple council members voiced concern over implementing a new government program quickly, especially one online, but both Cook and Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus stressed how well they believe typically works.

“For anybody that hasn’t used, it is a very good online reservation system,” Niehaus said. “I would feel confident saying that [] is a great platform for this temporary timed entry system.”

Overcrowding, COVID-19 precautions in mind