BLM seeking public comment on proposal to develop popular trailhead in Bears Ears National Monument

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) The trailhead to House on Fire, a cliff dwelling in Bears Ears National Monument, could soon be developed with a parking area and toilets under a preliminary proposal from the Bureau of Land Management.

South Mule Canyon, one of the most heavily used hiking trails in Bears Ears National Monument, doesn’t have much in the way of improvements.

The estimated 8,000 people annually who hike 1.5 miles to House on Fire, a prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling, pay a day-use fee at a Bureau of Land Management self-service station and park along the shoulder of a dirt road.

There are no pit toilets at the trailhead and signage is minimal. Braided paths crisscross the area, some of which have caused damage to cultural sites along the canyon rim. On busy days, when visitation sometimes tops 200 people, the parking area can become crowded, confusing and dangerous for hikers, according to the BLM.

A new proposal from the federal agency would address some of those concerns by developing a parking lot, closing unauthorized trails with a new loop trail and installing a toilet and small picnic area. The BLM is also proposing to close parking on road shoulders and to move the fee station.

“If implemented, this preliminary proposal would improve public safety and prevent resource damage to this iconic site,” the BLM said in a statement, adding that human waste and food waste are a problem in the area.

Bears Ears National Monument was designated at the request of five Native American tribes by President Barack Obama in 2016 and reduced by 85% the following year by President Donald Trump at the urging of Utah Republican elected leaders. The move is currently being challenged in federal court.

In January, the BLM doubled hiking fees in South Mule Canyon and on Cedar Mesa, and it expanded the fee area to include Comb Ridge in Bears Ears National Monument. The agency cited increased visitation — which has been rising for decades and saw a sharp uptick during the monument controversy — as one of the reasons for the fee increase.

According to a business plan released by the agency last year, the fees, which were opposed by anti-fee groups, will be used to “improve the facilities, update signage, and increase the ranger presence at the sites and trailheads.”

“Visitation is probably the biggest impact factor across the board for cultural resources,” R.E. Burrillo, an archaeologist and author of a forthcoming book on the Bears Ears region, told The Salt Lake Tribune in December. “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 [such as House on Fire],” including through signage and education.

The preliminary proposal for the House on Fire area was reviewed and recommended by the Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee in February, and a public scoping period opened this week. The public can review and comment on the plan until June 4 on eplanning.blm.gov.

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 by clicking here.