Devil’s Canyon Campground, a recreation site at the southeast corner of the Abajo mountains, close to Highway 191, got a new chip seal on its roads in May of this year. That’s the first part of a two-phase project, funded by money from the Great American Outdoors Act, which will also include improvements to the campground like new kiosks, a new self-guided nature hike pamphlet, and new marker posts and benches. The interpretive hiking trail will also be resurfaced.

The Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 channelled historic spending to address maintenance needs on public lands. The bill allocated $9.5 billion over five years to be spent by the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education for deferred maintenance projects. The Manti-La Sal National Forest, which manages the La Sal and Abajo mountains as well as the Wasatch Plateau in central Utah, has begun using some of those funds for projects in its boundaries.

Manti-La Sal staff submitted funding requests for eight projects for the 2021 fiscal year, and five of those were approved. Some have already been completed, like the chip-seal at Devil’s Canyon. Other improvements will make that campground more enjoyable and more accessible for the thousands of visitors who use it.

“We want to make it ADA-compliant,” said Andrew Orlemann, public services staff officer for the Manti-La Sal National Forest, who has played a key role in identifying projects for GAOA funding. The current Devil’s Canyon Campground trail is loose gravel that’s washed out in places, Orlemann said; a new, more durable surface will allow wheelchair access. The campground and trail improvement phase of that project will begin next year.

In 2020, Devil’s Canyon Campground saw 10,616 visitors, about 1,500 more than the previous year; as of July 28, 6,442 campers have used the site so far this year. The cost of the Devil’s Canyon Campground project is about $111,000. The forest contracted with the San Juan County Road Department to provide the equipment and labor for the chip seal phase.

“Projects get a higher priority if we have partners that are willing to work with us and contribute to these projects,” explained Samantha Stoffregen, public affairs officer for the Manti-La Sal National Forest. “The San Juan County Roads Department was a huge partner on this.” Labor on various projects will be completed by forest service employees, contractors, and other partners like county trail and road crews and nonprofit organizations.

2021 projects

Orlemann explained that forest officials from the Manti-La Sal held multiple meetings over months to discuss maintenance needs and generate a list of projects, then prioritize that list before submitting it to the Intermountain Regional Office of the Forest Service. (There are ten Forest Service regions.) Officers at the regional level reviewed the list and forwarded it to the Washington, D.C. office, which made the final selections. The Manti-La Sal has been allocated about $813,000 from the GAOA for projects in 2021; the Devil’s Canyon chip-seal project was the first GAOA-funded project to take place in the Intermountain Region. The entire region, which encompasses nearly 34 million acres of Forest Service land in Utah, Nevada, and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, was awarded $28.4 million for 2021 to fund 78 projects.

On the Manti-La Sal, the other four approved projects aside from Devil’s Canyon improvements include campground maintenance across the forest, road and trail sign maintenance, road and campground reconstruction at Maple Canyon, and renovations at the Gooseberry Guard Station.

The campground maintenance project, which is funded at $208,000, will replace picnic tables, fire rings and concrete pads, and install gravel lifts where needed, at all 18 campgrounds across the forest. Such maintenance is especially needed in recent years, when outdoor recreation activity has increased substantially. Orlemann said that in national forests across the country, visitation at dispersed camping sites went up by 40% during the pandemic; visitation to wilderness areas went up by 75%.

Every five years, every national forest conducts a visitor use monitoring study to observe visitation trends. The Manti-La Sal completed its last study in 2016; the next study is underway now. Data from the 2016 survey estimates about 295,000 visitors a year to the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

The road and trail signage project will take place over several years, starting with 578 new signs to replace existing signs in 2021. The Manti-La Sal shares a sign crew with the Fishlake National Forest, and so only has that staff for part of the field season, which has put the Manti-La Sal behind schedule on sign replacement and maintenance. That project is funded at $261,000.

The Maple Canyon project is complete. A narrow, winding road leads into the conglomerate rock canyon, which is popular for camping, four-wheeling, and rock climbing. Manti-La Sal National Forest North Zone Recreation Manager Bill Broadbear estimated about 16,500 visitors to Maple Canyon last year based on campground and day-use parking receipts.

“I am sure we are on track to have that many again this year,” he said.

That road was washboarded and dusty; a compacted gravel lift, treated with mag chloride, has made the road smoother and safer, at a cost of $115,000. That project was completed by contractors.

The last approved GAOA project on the Manti-La Sal for 2021 is the renovation of the Gooseberry Guard Station located on Elk Ridge west of the Abajo Mountains. The building serves as housing for seasonal staff and volunteers working in the area. Orlemann said the station was built in the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps, in the 1930s. Updates, to be completed by contractors, will include replacing the solar power system and regular maintenance needed for an old building. $118,000 has been allocated through GAOA for that project.

Manti-La Sal officials will continue to submit proposals over the next four years that the GAOA funding is available. The three projects that were submitted but not approved this year will be considered again for future rounds of funding: they are maintenance and repairs on the campground in Joe’s Valley, trail maintenance in the South Zone of the forest, and improved road access in the Bears Ears area.

Orlemann and Stoffregen noted that the Washington D.C. office is emphasizing aid to underserved rural communities in prioritizing projects.

“In addition to helping address deferred maintenance for these critical facilities and infrastructure, the GAOA will help the Forest Service to continue supporting rural economies and communities in and around national forests and grasslands across the country,” says a July newsletter published by the Manti-La Sal National Forest.