Mill Creek Canyon is a riparian natural area close to Moab, popular with hikers and for wading or soaking in the creek. In recent years, the area has seen significant increases in visitation, causing damage to natural resources and parking congestion at the trailhead and in adjacent neighborhoods, especially along Powerhouse Lane, which is the primary access point to the canyon. Search and Rescue calls to the area have also become more frequent.
The Grand County Commission considered two alternative letters to submit to the Bureau of Land Management regarding management recommendations for Mill Creek Canyon at its Nov. 3 meeting. The commission had agreed to table the issue at its last meeting; concerns raised by some stakeholders prompted commissioners to again postpone approving a formal letter supporting a management approach.
Similar concerns about over visitation in the canyon arose in the 1990s; at that time, stakeholders agreed on a strategy of not advertising Mill Creek to visitors. The area was removed from brochures, and hotel operators and other members of the hospitality industry were asked not to direct tourists to Mill Creek. That strategy lost traction with the rise of social media, through which Mill Creek visitors spread the word themselves about the scenic stream, red rock canyon walls and waterfall in the canyon.
A stakeholder group called the Mill Creek Community Collaborative was formed in 2018 to again address concerns about the canyon and to produce a set of recommended actions to submit to the BLM, the federal agency that manages the canyon. Stakeholders included local government entities, state and federal land managers, residents who live near Mill Creek access points, and nonprofits.
The MCCC used surveys to collect community input and discussed a range of possible management options, including implementing a fee system, closing certain access points, and moving the main parking area. The group developed a set of recommendations which were presented to the Moab City Council, the Grand County Commission, and the BLM over the summer. [See “Mill Creek Solutions,”June 24 edition. -ed.]
The recommendations include designating a trail system in the canyon, developing a long-term vegetation management plan, installing signs, and beginning monitoring efforts at access points other than the Powerhouse Lane trailhead, which has been the focus of planning efforts. The recommendations also suggest a bike lane on Sand Flats Road that connects Powerhouse Lane and Potato Salad Hill, and support efforts to create a shuttle system with a stop at Powerhouse Lane.
A major change in the recommendations is the suggestion to move the primary access from Powerhouse Lane to Potato Salad Hill on the other side of the creek. The group’s recommendation document notes that the MCCC did not reach a consensus on that point, though a majority of the group supported moving the parking to Potato Salad Hill, a popular obstacle for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.
The commission had two drafted letters prepared to submit to the BLM. The first conveyed support for the MCCC recommendations as presented; the second letter supports the MCCC recommendations and adds some other suggestions, such as closing Potato Salad Hill to motorized use and prohibiting bicycle use on the Moab Rim Trail (also known as the Mail Trail).
However, local nonprofit Moab Solutions and a representative of the Grand County Motorized Trails Committee asked the commission to consider recommendations that don’t involve moving the parking from Powerhouse Lane to Potato Salad Hill and allow Potato Salad Hill to remain open for motorized use.
Moab Solutions, which promotes environmental stewardship and has been contributing to cleanup and conservation efforts on the Mill Creek Parkway and in Mill Creek Canyon for many years, submitted an alternative recommendation to both the commission and the BLM referred to as the “A+ plan,” which would use management tools to mitigate congestion at the Powerhouse Lane parking area.
“Moving the primary entrance to Potato Salad Hill will not in fact ‘minimize user group conflicts’ but will rather augment these user conflicts between off road users and picnickers, hikers, and other users at Mill Creek for foot-powered activities,” the A+ plan reads.
It also points out that EMS and SAR personnel can currently use Potato Salad Hill to access the canyon, avoiding congestion with foot traffic and other recreators; this won’t be the case if primary access is moved to Potato Salad Hill. The Powerhouse Lane access involves a rocky ledge that could impede SAR or EMS operations.
Sara Melnicoff, founder and director of Moab Solutions, called into the meeting to ask the commission to table their letters and consider more alternatives.
Clif Koontz, director of the motorized access advocacy group Ride with Respect and chair of the Grand County Motorized Trails Committee, also submitted a letter to the commission asking that it not support shifting the primary access to Potato Salad Hill.
“[Potato Salad Hill] is an important obstacle (or challenge feature) for drivers and especially spectators,” Koontz wrote. Koontz also participated in the MCCC, and he pointed out that if the group had decided from the start that it was going to choose recommendations based on the majority rather than consensus, more representatives should have been added from the four-wheel-drive community, such as from groups like Moab Friends for Wheelin’ and Red Rock 4-Wheelers. He added that moving the parking would have few benefits and would incur some costs, and that alternative mitigation strategies could help alleviate pressure on Powerhouse Lane parking. He urged the commission to support some of the options presented in the A+ plan.
The county’s recommendation is only one small step in the process of implementing a new management strategy for Mill Creek Canyon. The Bureau of Land Management must complete a public review process as outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act, which involves consideration of multiple alternatives and a public comment period, and is likely to take many months.
The Grand County Commission meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 4 p.m. Meetings are streamed online at the Grand County Youtube channel. Schedules, agendas and opportunities for public comment can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net. Residents can email email@example.com to automatically reach each County Commission member, the commission administrator, the associate commission administrator, and the county attorney.