How to visit Utah’s public lands without loving them to death

Land managers and the outdoor recreation community think education needs to be part of getting outside.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service) A ranger looks at a sandstone wall with blue spray paint graffiti at Zion National Park. In 2020, the park saw an uptick in graffiti, forcing park leaders to make a plea on social media for visitors to not leave their ÒmarkÓ and to report any information about those whoÕve damaged park resources and facilities.

Kanab • Whether it is Arches, Zion, Bryce, Bears Ears or Grand Staircase, is it possible to love a landscape to death?

That was the question at the annual Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit in Kanab, where outdoor recreation industry experts discussed how to visit a place with respect, how to market and campaign tourism, getting children and families outside, and being a good steward of Utah’s public lands.

Tourism teaches people to love the land and it’s a boon to local economies but it also comes with problems. Mass tourism degrades fragile landscapes and visitors to Utah’s redrock country sometimes vandalize or loot archeological sites. Land managers and the outdoor recreation community think education needs to be a critical part of getting outside.

The outdoor recreation industry in Utah generates about $6 billion annually, according to Pitt Grewe, executive director for the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation.

Along with the tourism dollars comes trash, graffiti and traffic. The key is to making mass tourism less damaging teaching visitors to respect the places they’re seeing, according to outdoor recreation experts.

In his keynote address, Jake Palma, monument manager at Bears Ears National Monument for the Bureau of Land Management, said that anyone who visits Utah’s 34-million acres of public lands, its five national parks, or any other lands need to do their homework by preparing beyond bringing water, food and a tent when recreating outdoors.

“When you get to a place with cliff dwellings or rock art, don’t touch these things,” Palma said to the hundreds gathered at the Kanab Center when asked how he developed his connection to landscapes like Bears Ears. “People always want to look through windows and walls over 1,000 years old.”

Instilling respect for the land should start at a young age, says Matt Cadwell, of Tread Lightly!, a nonprofit that promotes responsible recreation.

In his line of work with those who ride in off-road vehicles, Cadwell says this demographic prides itself on public lands ownership. He says that pride should come with a sense of responsibility too.

“Ownership has responsibility and that is something we are really trying to convey to our users,” Cadwell told a crowded room who came for the panel, “Recreation Overcrowding: Loving Our Wild Places To Death.” “If you’re going to own a house, you have a responsibility to that. And public lands should be no different so that we make sure that they’re not just available tomorrow but for future generations.”

Even though he is not front in center with messaging about Indigenous cultural resources, Brian Storm, archaeologist for the Kanab Field Office, makes it a priority to advocate for the protection of cultural resources on BLM lands.

“I think that it is very important that people begin to realize that cultural sites are more than just places for people to go to and they are important,” he said.

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