Should a tour company be able to land its helicopters near Utah’s Canyonlands National Park?

Operator wants to fly to remote state trust lands near Horseshoe Canyon, raising concerns over impact on nearby public lands managed as wilderness.

(File photo courtesy of Sam Gregory) Members of Boy Scout troop on a tour through Bluejohn Canyon in 2005, nearly two years after Aron Ralston was trapped in the same canyon for 5-1/2 days and amputated his right arm to escape from being pinned by a boulder. A Moab helicopter tour operator has asked the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration for permission to land on state trust lands near Bluejohn Canyon and drop off clients who would explore the canyon. The proposal is raising concerns over its potential effects on nearby public lands and Canyonlands National Park.

A Moab company offering helicopter tours hopes to use parcels of state trust lands in eastern Wayne County to ferry customers near Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon. That proposal has sparked a debate among state and federal regulators, and an environmental group, over whether the flights could degrade the wilderness experience on nearby public lands and Canyonlands National Park.

Pinnacle Helicopters has petitioned the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) for a legal right of entry to four spots along Blue John Canyon immediately south of Canyonlands’ Horseshoe area, a non-contiguous part of the park that harbors the famous Great Gallery and its ancient pictographs.

Blue John Canyon gained international notoriety thanks to the 2010 movie “127 Hours,” which depicts the misadventure of Aron Ralston who amputated his own arm after it got pinned under a boulder in 2003.

Pinnacle has identified 2.5-acre sites on each of four checkerboarded trustland sections where company owner Benjamin Black said he wants to land. The idea would be to fly in pairs of well-heeled clients with a guide for excursions through Blue John Canyon, according to Black. The helicopter would drop them off at one location, return to the Moab airport, then go back to pick up the clients at another location later in the day.

“It’s at most two clients once a day,” Black told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It is not something we do often. Two to four times a month.” The on-the-ground guiding, he said, would be done by an outside firm with the appropriate permits.

One possible candidate is Moab Canyon Tours, which holds a special recreation permit administered by the Bureau of Land Management’s Hanksville field station. But as currently written Moab Canyon Tours’ permit, like those held by other guiding services, would not cover Pinnacle clients, according to BLM spokeswoman Allison Ginn.

The BLM manages the terrain, located east of Hanskville, as an area under federal study as potential wilderness, meaning wheeled transport is generally barred or at least discouraged.

Ginn said Moab Canyon Tours’ current plan of operations does not include dropping clients off by helicopter and hiking in adjacent wilderness study areas. And any changes to its current plans, she said, would require official review and public comment.

The lands are “protected for the values of solitude, naturalnes, and quiet primitive recreation,” said Kya Marienfeld, a staff attorney with the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This is exactly why the helicopter operator is seeking to take advantage of these SITLA sections … even though the actual hikes and canyoneering trips will be conducted entirely on the surrounding public lands.”

Marienfeld said she believes the proposal illustrates a stark contrast in management rules for federally-supervised public lands and state trust lands, which are not subject to wilderness study-area standards.

“They essentially allow an island within wilderness-quality lands where any activity the state chooses can be allowed, no matter how incompatible with the surrounding uses on public lands,” the SUWA attorney said.

By law, SITLA is obligated to optimize the financial returns it earns from school trust sections for the benefit of Utah schools, regardless of other concerns, and is guaranteed access to its sometimes isolated acreage.

Being landlocked inside protected federal lands renders many trust sections unprofitable, so it is appropriate for SITLA to leverage whatever value it can from holdings such as those in and around Horseshoe Canyon Wilderness Study Area, according to Kim Christy, SITLA’s deputy director.

”It is stunning to see the layers of different conflicts within the federal domain that have had an impact on us,“ Christy said.

“It’s a tension that obviously exists,” he said, but SITLA is not always in a position to cater to other concerns with regard to sensitive lands.

“We have a mandate,” Christy said, “and we will mitigate to the extent that is practical but to shut down opportunities, we don’t believe that is consistent with our beneficiaries’ best interest.”

SITLA has already given a go-ahead for Pinnacle to land on an existing airstrip near the Dirty Devil River, about 15 miles south of Horseshoe. According to Pinnacle’s website, the company flies guests daily at $399 apiece to the spot in Happy Canyon, where they can wander around an old mining camp. Black’s wife Dacia told The Tribune the company actually flies there five to eight times a month.

In exchange for that access to Happy Canyon, Pinnacle pays $300 in annual fees and $15 per guest to SITLA.

Although one of its sought-after SITLA landing sites would be in Horseshoe Canyon immediately upstream of the national park line, Black stressed he is not interested in ”backdooring” clients into the park’s Great Gallery.

Without chopper access, the destination is a 7-mile round-trip hike from a park trailhead, which is in turn a 90-minute drive from Green River.

“Nobody in Horseshoe Canyon is going to hear the helicopter,” Black said.

He and SITLA officials recently met with Canyonlands superintendent Kate Cannon to address concerns she had raised about Pinnacle‘s proposal. Black agreed to not fly over the park, according to Christy.

The BLM, meanwhile, has initiated an environmental review on Pinnacle’s proposed shuttle service to the Mineral Bottom airstrip on the Green River near its entrance to Canyonlands. Black, whose small firm flies two Robinson R44 helicopters, is seeking a special recreation permit to shuttle rafting-outfitters’ clients to this put-in for river trips through the park.

SUWA said it objects to the Blue John chopper landings because they “would open the flood gates” for aerial incursions to state lands within hard-to-reach areas that should be managed in ways that preserve a wilderness experience.

“The only people this new undertaking will benefit is a few extremely wealthy tourists, at the expense of locals who know the Robber’s Roost and Horseshoe Canyon area as a place that is well-worth the trek precisely because of its superb remoteness,” Marienfeld said. “Flying rich tourists in for day-trips not only cheapens the wilderness experience, but also ruins the solitude that makes this location special.”

Wilderness study areas ;are lands worthy of consideration for a wilderness designation by Congress. Across Utah, the BLM manages 3.2 million acres in 86 study areas, which are not managed in strict accordance with wilderness rules. But the agency does restrict land-altering activities that could rule out a future wilderness designation, while allowing uses and traversing of routes that predated the study area designation, according to Ginn.

Study area rules would not necessarily bar helicopter landings, but it is unlikely the BLM would allow a commercial permit-holder to land choppers.

For his part, Black said he rejected the entire notion of wilderness study areas as a fuzzy legal construct with little foundation in federal law.

“If BLM would accommodate us, the controversy with SITLA wouldn’t exist,” he said. Black, who describes himself as a devotee of hiking in wilderness areas, also disputed SUWA’s claims that the surrounding public land is “largely unaffected by human activity.”

“These places we are looking at in Blue John [in their current state] are not worthy of wilderness status,” Black said. “You have to get those damn donkeys out of there,” he said, in a reference to herds of wild burros that share the rangelands with feral cows.