A family of four who spends two or more days hiking in portions of Bears Ears National Monument will be required to pay $40 in fees starting Jan. 1. That’s when a new fee structure imposed by the Bureau of Land Management takes effect, doubling most fees for overnight and day hiking on Cedar Mesa.
The changes also expand the fee area to include Butler Wash and Comb Ridge in the Shash Jáa unit of Bears Ears near Bluff that currently offers free dispersed camping and hiking.
A business plan for the new fee structure released by the BLM earlier this year cites increased recreational use in the archaeologically rich area as a major driver for the change.
“Increased visitation without a commensurate increase in visitor services is resulting in negative impacts to archeological sites, natural resources, and the visitor experience at Cedar Mesa,” the document states. “In order to mitigate potential damage, it is critical to improve the facilities, update signage, and increase the ranger presence at the sites and trailheads.”
Visitation to Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge has been climbing steadily for decades and saw a sharp spike after a 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument was designated by President Barack Obama in 2016 at the request of five Native American tribes with ancestral ties to the landscape and its hundreds of thousands of cultural sites.
In 2017, President Donald Trump reduced the monument by 85% to 202,000 acres, a move that is being challenged in federal court by tribal governments and environmental groups.
The designation and subsequent controversy increased the profile of the region, and BLM statistics show a 32% increase in permitted use on Cedar Mesa — which was removed from the monument by Trump but is still federally managed land — from 2016 to 2017, though the uptick has since slowed.
“BLM uses fees collected from Cedar Mesa and Butler Wash to improve facilities, update signage, and increase the ranger presence at archeological sites and trailheads onsite," a spokesperson for the agency told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The fee helps protect sensitive archeological sites through supporting improved directional, etiquette, and interpretive information.”
“Visitation is probably the biggest impact factor across the board for cultural resources,” said R.E. Burrillo, an archaeologist and author of a forthcoming book on the Bears Ears region. “It’s steady. It’s constant. It’s death by a thousand cuts.
“As visitation has increased, ranger presence has not,” he added. “The research that I’ve done, all of it indicates that the best way to protect really sensitive cultural resources ... is to direct people toward visitor-ready resources,” including through signage and education. Burrillo also said he’d like to see money from increased fees flow to the agency’s cultural resource program, which he describes as being run on a "shoestring budget.”
The BLM notes the fees have not been raised since 1999 when visitation was at a fraction of its current level, though the scheduled increases far outpace inflation over the past 20 years.
Kitty Benzar, president of the Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said it’s possible that the existing fees being charged on Cedar Mesa violate the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) of 2004, which added restrictions to fee areas on federal lands.
“We’ve pointed out that the public process was flawed, and that there are parts of the plan that are in violation of the law,” Benzar said. "[FLREA] specifically says that the BLM cannot charge anybody a fee just for passing through undeveloped federal lands without using facilities and services. And below the rim of the Cedar Mesa canyons there are no facilities and services. It’s a primitive area … so since 2004, that, in my opinion, has been an illegal fee.”
Benzar added that the fee levies rely on the vaguely defined category of “special recreation permit fees." Entrance fees, by contrast, cannot be assessed for visitors under 16 years old and require agencies to provide more facilities and services.
“Is hiking in a canyon a ‘specialized recreation use’? I don’t think that passes the laugh test, but it’s never been litigated,” she said.
Day-use fees are set to increase from $2 to $5 per person, per day. Weeklong passes are increasing from $5 per person to $10. Overnight backpacking permits are being raised from $8 to $15 per person, per trip while also eliminating off-season discounts. An annual day-use pass is doubling to $40.
By comparison, there are no day use or overnight fees for most hiking within the BLM-managed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A fee of $5 per vehicle is assessed in the monument for hikers on the popular Calf Creek trail. In the Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch areas in southern Utah, which are also on BLM lands, day-use fees are $6 per person, per day.
A weeklong entrance fee to Arches National Park costs $25 per vehicle, meaning that the new BLM fees on Cedar Mesa will be more expensive for vehicles carrying three or more people. Annual passes issued by the National Park Service or the “America the Beautiful” program are not applicable on Cedar Mesa or in Bears Ears.
There are no fees required for off-highway vehicle users on popular motorized trails in the region, such as Arch Canyon.
The Cedar Mesa user fees brought in $82,200 in 2017, according to the BLM. The fee increase is expected to bring the total revenue to $202,000 for 2020 or a little over a third of projected expenditures. The remainder will be covered by the agency.
The business plan for the increase was approved by the Utah Resource Advisory Council for the BLM in June and signed by BLM officials in September.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.