Will giving the state control of historic Hole in the Rock Road pave the way for crowds and development?

(File photo courtesy of National Park Service) Steve Henry, a Nation Park Service backcountry ranger, visits Hole in the Rock, the famous trail cut by a Mormon pioneer expedition to reach San Juan County in 1880, along with anthropologist Katie Brown and Erik Stanfield, a cultural resource specialist for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Utah officials have been interested in developing a new state park in part of Garfield County to commemorate the San Juan Expedition and enable bigger groups to visit. Now, a proposal in Congress would transfer Hole In The Rock Road, the road to the area, to the state of Utah.

A proposal in Congress to transfer Hole in the Rock Road to the state of Utah has ignited both hopes and worries that development and tributes to the area’s Mormon heritage could one day draw crowds to this remote and historic tract of land, which lost protections when President Donald Trump dismantled Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument earlier this month.

Hole in the Rock Road is a primitive dirt road that runs 57 miles from State Road 12 near Escalante to the “Hole in the Rock” cliff crevice over Lake Powell, where Mormon pioneers lowered their wagons to what was then the Colorado River. The road, as well as about 150,000 nearby acres containing some of the state’s most popular slot canyons, was excluded from the boundaries of the three smaller monuments Trump announced to replace Grand Staircase-Escalante.

One day after Trump’s proclamation on Dec. 4, Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart introduced a bill that would create Escalante Canyons National Park. One of its provisions would transfer Hole in the Rock Road to the state of Utah.

State and local governments have been intensely interested in improving the road and developing a park to commemorate the expedition ordered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to create a settlement in southeast Utah in 1880. Stewart replied to multiple calls and emails with a short statement:

“Hole in the Rock Road is historically significant to Mormon pioneers and the state. It’s only fitting that the state of Utah has the ability to preserve and manage this small, but significant area.”

An uncertain road

Hole in the Rock Road is deeply rutted, and in inclement weather can become impassable and dangerous. In good conditions, the drive takes two to three hours. That hasn’t entirely deterred tourists; as many as 200 per day use the road to visit the popular slot canyons, rock formations and historic sites that are nearby, county officials have said.

“There’s been people stranded down there after storms,” said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. “We’ve had all kinds of emergency services issues.”

As of October, Garfield County had secured funding to rebuild the northernmost segment of road, which crews regrade about 20 times per tourist season. This has lowered the road, making it more susceptible to water damage.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management had been amenable to the county’s rebuilding plan because it didn’t include paving — forbidden under monument rules.

It’s not yet clear what being excluded from the new monuments will mean for the road.

“The end game is always to put asphalt down on the road, to make it easier to travel, to get more people down there,” said Kya Marienfeld, wildlands attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which opposes transferring or paving the road.

“Driving on a dirt road and the speeds that requires is a lot different than driving on a paved road,” said Stephen Bloch, SUWA attorney. “It would alter the visitor experience people are going to have in that area.”

Pollock said the county has no immediate plans, or funds, to pave 60 miles of road. If Stewart’s bill passes, it’s uncertain who will determine the road’s fate.

“We’d need to bring all the key stakeholders together and figure out what that transfer to the state actually means and identify how we’re going to maintain that infrastructure,” said Nathan Schwebach, spokesman for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Bloch suspects “the state would like to be able to maintain and improve Hole in the Rock Road without having to seek approvals from the BLM,” he said.

But the Utah Department of Transportation was not consulted on the bill and hasn’t considered whether the road should be modified, said UDOT spokesman John Gleason.

‘Making something fantastic happen’

While the DNR has no specific plan to modify Hole in the Rock Road, there is a vision to enshrine its history.

Utah’s Legislature in February instructed state parks managers to explore the feasibility of developing a Mormon heritage park as large as 6,000 acres somewhere near Hole in the Rock, perhaps through a special-use permit on the surrounding federal lands.

In a follow-up report for a state Senate committee in June, state parks director Fred Hayes said the Division of Parks and Recreation is “absolutely, 100 percent committed to making something fantastic happen at Hole in the Rock.”

“There is something that our society needs to learn from those pioneers … that we need to facilitate down there,” Hayes said.

But it’s not certain that such a park would even be sited along Hole in the Rock Road; in its review of potential locations, parks officials are evaluating a site closer to the town of Escalante, said state parks spokesman Eugene Swalberg.

The road’s current condition could prevent the state from pursuing a site alongside it — especially because a lot of people would need to visit for the park to generate sufficient revenue.

“That road is extremely rough and it’s a long way out there. Is it realistic people are going to drive out there?” asked Jeff Rasmussen, state parks deputy director.

Hayes noted in June that the state’s heritage parks tend to not be self-sustaining. Staffing and the need for facilities are typically greater at parks that display historic artifacts, like Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, or provide interpretation, like This Is the Place State Park in Salt Lake City, Rasmussen explained in an interview last week.

“We have seven heritage parks, none of which cover all their costs,” Rasmussen said.

But Mormon heritage activities on Hole in the Rock Road appear to hold high interest. In the past, church youth groups visited the road for trek-style re-enactments of the 1880 expedition, Pollock said. When Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was declared 20 years ago, the management plan banned groups larger than 12 from organizing trips in that area; pioneer re-enactments typically involve as many as 100 people.

“It was limiting Boy Scout trips, limiting traditional church trips that in that area people had been doing for over 100 years. It was not good, not good for anybody,” Pollock said.

Now that the road and surrounding land are outside new monument boundaries, church groups may hope to revive the tradition — and the state parks department may seek to facilitate that.

“We’re always looking for opportunities for people to recreate at our state parks,” Rasmussen said, noting that trek re-enactments are being considered at East Canyon State Park in Morgan County.

Pollock said re-enactments wouldn’t be disruptive.

“We would hope this would be something that everybody would enjoy,” he said. “The actual re-enactment, you’ve got to be real, that would be kind of neat if you see wagons and horses, kind of like an old Western movie. They took a specific route, just off the road. It doesn’t do damage because it’s just horses and wagons.”

A draw for development?

But conservationists and recreationists say group size limits have helped protect the area around Hole in the Rock Road, and large groups can cause damage even if they’re trying to stick to seemingly benign activities.

“This is a really fragile landscape we’re talking about,” said Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a conservation group in Kanab. “I think it’s important that impact be considered carefully and thoughtfully. … I don’t believe [small group size] needs to impact or impede youth groups from going.”

Croft also noted that, if the goal of transferring the road to the state is to allow visitors to enjoy its historic character, modifying the road would detract from that.

“The whole intention of this experience is to give a little bit of the flavor of the travails that the Mormon pioneers undertook,” Croft said. “A little bit of that slow pace, a little bit of discomfort … is really important to see and experience.”

Improvements to the road could also have implications for industrial development in the area. Old BLM maps show two clusters of oil leases were active along Hole in the Rock Road when the monument was first declared in 1996 — one near Devil’s Garden and the other near a famous pioneer stop, Dance Hall Rock. Both landmarks are within the new Kaiparowits National Monument but are near its borders.

(File photo courtesy of Jerry Roundy) Dance Hall Rock is shown near Hole in the Rock road. A proposal in Congress would transfer the road to state control.

The oil and gas leases expired while the entire area was within the original monument, but most of the land they were on falls outside the new boundaries. Conservation advocates worry that road improvements would make oil and gas drilling more feasible at those sites, and that would change the historic and natural quality of the area.

“If there’s more access points and easier road travel then absolutely [it could promote industrial development],” Croft said. “You’re talking about some of the most beloved and special places along Hole in the Rock, that have deep cultural significance for folks like me that have pioneer heritage, as well as one of the most visited places in the monument. To have industry set up adjacent to these sites is horrifying.”

Even if the road is transferred, the area around it remains federally owned: The Hole in the Rock site is in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service, and the road to the north runs through land controlled by the BLM.

But the proposal raises questions as to the likelihood of other federal land transfers, conservationists say. Stewart’s bill was introduced one day after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters, “We’re not taking one square inch of federal lands and transferring or selling it.”

“We have no concern about a state park happening on state-owned land,” Croft said. “Federal lands transferred to the state is a whole different issue. We are incredibly concerned. … If that’s what’s happening here, it’s a misrepresentation of the underlying motives of this entire monument debacle.”

Bloch said the timing is suspect.

“Ultimately, it feels like it’s another piece in the puzzle of the state’s push to control federal public lands, their constant chafing at the fact that these are owned by all Americans,” he said.

A U.S. House subcommittee on natural resources heard testimony on Stewart’s bill earlier this month but has not voted on whether to advance it. Environmental groups and American Indian tribes have filed lawsuits to block Trump’s reductions of the original Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Devil's Garden area inside the new Kaiparowits National Monument. A proposal now in Congress would transfer the nearby Hole in the Rock road to state control.