19th century mining law, budget crunch hit home

19th century mining law, budget crunch hit home

When congressional staffers take a tour of Arches National Park, their agenda always includes a nondescript piece of desert over by Balanced Rock.

“They all want to see where Ed Abbey lived,” said park Superintendent Laura Joss, standing beside her government-issue Chevy Malibu.

Pointing out Abbey’s old trailer site framed pastorally beneath the La Sal Mountains and the Windows, she didn’t need to explain that the late author’s seasons as an Arches ranger back in the 1950s were inspiration for “Desert Solitaire,” a memoir famous for its fierce defense of national parks and wild canyon country.

“I think about him when I watch how long it takes for the snow (on the La Sals) to melt in the summer,” Joss said.

Abbey lived here back when Arches, created in 1971, was a national monument and Canyonlands National Park, created in 1964, existed as a dream in the minds of conservationists and some park rangers. Half a century later, the pair of parks, both celebrating the sculpting power of erosion on sandstone, exist in a region as famous for its beauty as for its excellent mountain biking, rock climbing and four-wheeling.

The parks sit on opposite sides of U.S. Highway 191, each encompassing the iconic redrock landscape of the Colorado Plateau. Arches is home to Utah’s celebrity rock, Delicate Arch, and the greatest concentration of natural arches in the world. Canyonlands’ remote sandstone freak show of spires, slots and potholes sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers forming the most important river in the Southwest.

Within a day’s drive of Salt Lake City and Denver, Arches and Canyonlands are popular, trend-defying parks, where visitation is on the rise, a sparkling new visitor center greets sight-seers at Arches, and parking spaces and camp sites can be tough to find during the height of the tourist season. And yet, it’s still possible to come to Arches in the wintertime and enjoy a hike to Delicate Arch without encountering another soul on the trail.

“It’s crucial to maintain the relatively remote character of these places,” said Kate Cannon, superintendent of Canyonlands and supervisor of the Southern Utah Group, which also includes Arches National Park and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments.

“The rosiest picture we have”

But challenges facing these parks may be as common as the arches that decorate them.

A climbing management plan is needed at Arches, where Joss closed all named arches to rock climbing after a man scaled Delicate Arch earlier this year.

Less than three percent of Canyonlands has been surveyed for archaeological sites, preventing the park from protecting sites it doesn’t know about, reports the National Parks Conservation Association.

Though the parks are working hard to eradicate them, invasive tamarisk trees clog desert washes and riverbanks, forcing many native plants out of their habitat. The trees also toy with the hydrology of the park: A single tamarisk can absorb 200 gallons of water in one day.

At Arches, a proposed transportation management plan that once called for a shuttle system to handle traffic congestion in the park has been whittled back, now calling for traffic calming measures, an optional commercial shuttle system, a new trailhead parking lot and rehabilitation of numerous illegal turnouts on the park’s highways.

Flash floods from a barrage of fierce rainstorms washed out a bridge over Salt Wash on the trail to Delicate Arch last October, and the park is considering ways to fix the trail. Possible fixes include re-routing the trail or building a new bridge.

Joss said it could cost up to about $200,000 to fix the flood damage.

Tight park budgets have forced the Southern Utah Group parks to consolidate and reduce administrative staff and re-evaluate the need for some staff positions once thought critical, such as a radio technician.

Though the parks’ budgets have increased slightly in recent years, cuts are inevitable, Cannon said, because those budget increases don’t account for inflation. The parks are trying to make cuts that won’t impact visitor services, she said.

“That’s really the rosiest picture we have,” she said. “We hope there wouldn’t be a significant visible effect when a visitor comes into the park. Our ability to keep the restrooms clean is what worries us.”

Though visitors to Arches are greeted with a spacious new visitor center, the park faces a $23 million maintenance backlog, said Karen Breslin, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Intermountain Region in Denver.

At Canyonlands, she said, that number is even bigger: The park’s maintenance backlog is $46 million.

That’s why tourists may get a hit in the wallet in 2008, when both parks plan to double their entrance fees from $10 to $20 to help pay for maintenance projects. Those fees don’t all stay in the same park, however. Twenty percent goes to other parks, and the rest is shared among the four parks of the Southern Utah Group, Cannon said.

The dollar amount attached to Canyonlands’ maintenance backlog might seem big, yet Cannon said the backlog is constantly evolving: Once one project is completed, another is added to the list in a perpetual cycle.

“The parks have been working very hard to maintain things that have fallen into disrepair,” she said. “You never get to 100 percent maintenance, but we’re closer to that than we were five years ago.”

A mining law’s legacy

Just the mention of Angel Arch is tantamount to fightin’ words at Canyonlands.

Angel Arch, which San Juan County claims was once a popular picnic area, is lodged deep within the park’s Needles District and was once accessible by vehicle via the often impassible Salt Wash.

The trail along Salt Wash is now closed, but it’s being claimed by San Juan County under Revised Statute 2477, a 19th century federal mining law which granted rights-of-way across public lands to promote the settlement of the West. Though the law was repealed in 1976, anyone claiming that a right of way was in public use before the law was repealed can be given the right to claim it as a “highway.”

If such a claim is granted at Canyonlands, according to a 2004 National Park Conservation Association report, roads could be built in remote, sensitive areas of the park.

The state of Utah and San Juan County claim Salt Wash in Canyonlands’ Needles District as one such right-of-way because they say they want people who can’t walk to be able to see Angel Arch.

The problem is, the “road” to Angel Arch, now closed at Peek-A-Boo, is a muddy wash in a narrow canyon that’s been closed to vehicle traffic for years.

“San Juan County’s contention is that Angel Arch is one of the real icon elements to Canyonlands,” said San Juan County Commission Chairman Lynn Stevens. Access for families who want to have picnics beneath the arch “shouldn’t be denied to anyone who can’t hike 17 miles one-way.”

He said the county would be willing to work with the park to limit the number of vehicles in Salt Wash, adding that the county won’t push any other RS 2477 claims within the park.

Any successful RS 2477 claim within Canyonlands could be detrimental to the park, said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“If the county is able to force the park service to back down from a decision to protect Salt Creek, there’s no reason we can’t see similar challenges of park service decisions to protect other areas,” he said. “Parks like Canyonlands were often explored by jeeps in the early days. You can see the park service’s authority to control that use undermined or completely obliterated by people using RS 2477 to force these routes open.”

Cannon said the issue will be resolved by going to court under the Quiet Title Act, under which the courts can adjudicate a person’s claim to federal land.

“The question really is, is it our land?” she said. “There’s a legitimate question of jurisdiction and the place to settle it is in court. The good news is that, although 2477 is a huge and significant issue, we’re getting to a point where we’re going to have answers instead of argument.”

Share this post