Plan for reservation system at southern Utah’s Arches National Park is out — for now

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Visitors take pictures and hike around Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on Saturday, March 5, 2016.

Federal officials are holstering a proposed reservation system for Arches National Park in the face of mounting opposition and concerns about the deep economic wounds such a program could inflict by slashing visitation at the world-renowned southern Utah attraction.

Arches officials unveiled the proposal in 2017 as the central part of a plan to reduce traffic congestion, which has turned a park visit into a nightmare on busy days.

The idea became mired in controversy, with many critics arguing a reservation requirement would make it too difficult to go to the park — which saw a record 1.7 million visitors last year — spontaneously or without advanced planning.

The pressure grew this month with the public release of an economic impact analysis showing that nearby Moab tourism businesses could experience a $22 million hit in the program’s first year. The analysis predicted visitation would dip by 5 percent to 10 percent, then rebound as the public adjusted to the new system.

Park officials were preparing to roll out the reservation plan that had been years in the making, scheduling an open house in Moab for early April. But the National Park Service announced Monday that it was postponing the meeting until summer.

“The National Park Service takes public comments seriously and continues to evaluate that feedback carefully,” spokesman Marco De Leon, who is based at the agency’s Intermountain regional office in Denver, wrote in an email Monday. “We are taking a healthy step back to consider all of our options to mitigate traffic congestion at Arches National Park.”

The park service will use the public feedback to refine its plan, he added.

“We have identified several areas where we believe additional information and analysis would be beneficial to better understand traffic congestion issues,” De Leon wrote. “ ... As part of that process, we are revising our schedule and holding plans to implement a reservation system for vehicle entrance to the park at this time.”

The news troubled the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), which has long backed the reservation concept, developed under the leadership of Arches Superintendent Kate Cannon, as a possible solution to traffic woes at Zion, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and other crowded national parks.

“I’m curious about what they are thinking,” said Erika Pollard, the NPCA’s Salt Lake City-based regional program manager. Reservations "can be an adaptable solution where you adapt the number of daily entrances depending on the impacts. You are spreading people out throughout the course of the day and the season.”

She said support from the community is critical to the success of any plan to reduce congestion and conceded that some Moab residents have reservations about requiring park visitors to schedule their entries.

“We want to get it right at Arches out front,” Pollard said. “There are other parks dealing with the same issue.”

As part of the planning process, Cannon’s team had dismissed two options out of hand:

• Paving additional access roads into and around the park to spread visitors around Arches.

• Creating a shuttle system that could funnel many visitors into the park without their cars.

These costly options, which enjoyed some support among Utah’s political leaders, might now be back in play.

Pollard worries more pavement would just toss more cars into the park without addressing congestion. Besides, she added, cutting new roads would not be possible since the park’s terrain is managed as wilderness everywhere away from existing roads and trailheads.

Cannon is scheduled to discuss the park traffic plan at Tuesday’s meeting of the Grand County Council, according to Councilwoman Mary McGann, who believes the reservation proposal has merit. She contends protecting the park and its geological wonders should be the primary concern.

“It’s not the objective of a park to be the financial driver of an economy,” said McGann, speaking for herself and not the seven-member council, which has not taken a position on the reservation proposal. “I don’t think the sky is falling. People plan their vacations; people don’t just show up.”

One critic, Moab entrepreneur Michael Liss, called the decision a “big win” for park access systemwide.

“Arches was the canary in the mine shaft ... and it looks like the answer is a resounding no,” Liss wrote in an email. “Other national parks were waiting for this domino to fall. This domino did not fall. Rest assured that on a hectic Friday in Salt Lake or Denver, you can still jump in your car or on a plane and head out into the majesty of nature, and you won’t arrive at the Grand Canyon to a sign that says, ‘Sorry, this national park is full; book six months in advance if you’d like to see it.’ The human soul in need of nourishment in the majestic landscapes of nature doesn’t make reservations.”