As recreation keeps booming near Moab, feds look to limit dispersed camping at biking hot spot

Klondike Bluffs, where a heavenly mountain bike area north of Moab was developed barely a decade ago, appears to be going to hell — if it hasn’t arrived there already.

These public lands, sandwiched between U.S. 191 and Arches National Park, remain premier places to ride and view dinosaur tracks, but dispersed camping has taken a serious toll on the land and degraded the visitor experience.

Campers drive over soft soils in search of sites to pitch a tent, flatten vegetation, and leave behind mounds of fetid waste, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental assessment of a proposal to consolidate dispersed camping into designated sites.

“The end goal is to provide sustainable camping opportunities where visitors have a good experience and resources are protected,” said agency spokeswoman Lisa Bryant. “It has gotten to the point that we have impacts to human health and safety. It’s just not sustainable. We want to create a situation where people want to camp there.”

The BLM is seeking public input on the assessment through April 15.

With skyrocketing recreational use, dispersed camping is spreading, some might say metastasizing, around Moab’s biking and climbing destinations, but it is particularly messy at the busy Klondike Bluffs, which also boasts popular dinosaur fossil sites, such as the Copper Ridge Sauropod Trail.

“Once a place is popular, it is not providing good service to let it be a free-for-all,” said Moab business leader Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling. “If you have nostalgia for a backcountry place, you might have to drive farther and walk in on your feet.”

In the past decade, recreational visits have more than doubled to 3 million people a year on the 1.8 million acres the BLM’s Moab Field Office administers around Canyonlands and Arches National parks, along the Colorado River and under the La Sal Mountains.

But the infrastructure to accommodate that action has hardly kept pace. Visitors, meanwhile, like to camp near the places they ride, climb, BASE jump, slackline and hike. As a result, Klondike Bluffs and places along Mineral Bottom Road and Hell Roaring Canyon have become overrun with car campers.

Designated camping — once funding is secured — would improve the experience for everyone, according to Korenblat, a leading proponent of human-powered recreation on public land.

“If you are camping near a recreation asset, it would be good to know no one is going to come through your campsite," she said. “In those situations, you want to know what to expect and what the rules are, and you can have a great time.”

On busy weekends at Klondike, no one knows what to expect. Campers’ vehicles frequently clog the Copper Ridge trailhead parking lot so there is nowhere for fossil seekers to park.

“Recreationists utilizing the area for biking or for dinosaur-site viewing have complained that the level of dispersed camping has damaged their recreation experience,” states the BLM’s environmental assessment. “Bikers especially have complained that a 'world-class resource’ (biking trails) are being diminished by the presence of dispersed campers all along the trails.”

Those campers, of course, are fellow cyclists who flock to public lands outside Moab. Klondike is among six places the BLM designated as “mountain bike focus areas” in its 2008 Moab management plan. Since then, a nonprofit called Grand County Trail Mix has developed 150 miles of trails, including 12 trails covering 53 miles at Klondike Bluffs.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Klondike trails now attract bikers by the thousands, many from Salt Lake County and Colorado.

“We have all been blindsided by how quickly the business escalated,” said Scott Escott, Trail Mix’s former trails coordinator. He welcomed the BLM’s plans to designate camping sites and provide amenities because the bentonite and clay soils there are easily damaged when rain hits.

“There is an incredible amount of damage being done because of the soil conditions,” he said. “I’m glad to see this happening and dispersed camping is going away.”

Klondike is broken into two units separated by a swath of state trust lands. The campground, which includes fire rings, toilets and picnic tables, would go in the north unit, but the BLM has yet to figure out where exactly.

“We are going to identify designated sites that avoid cultural and paleo resources,” Bryant said. “That will be the first step, and then we’ll start looking for a good site for the campground.”

A similar situation unfolded along the Colorado River, upstream from Moab, where dispersed camping was the norm for years before a string of fee campgrounds helped turn State Road 128 into a well-ordered recreation corridor. The BLM’s Moab office now operates 29 campgrounds that handle about 90,000 visitors. Officials don’t really know how many are dispersed camping; they just know it’s a lot, and the sites are proliferating along with their impacts.

“Camping occurs wherever a user likes, regardless of its impact on resources or on other recreation users,” the Klondike assessment states. “While motorized vehicle use is restricted to designated roads, many users feel entitled to drive wherever they wish in pursuit of a campsite.”

A campground and designated sites would not only protect the landscape, officials say, but also would make for a more enjoyable visit.

“Camping in a campground would provide more privacy for campers because an assigned space of land would be allocated to each campsite,” they wrote in the assessment. “Campers would not have to put up with people camping right next to them, as is currently the case."

To avoid disturbing raptors, campsites would be located away from rock formations that offer suitable nesting habitat for birds of prey. Dogs would have to be leashed to avoid bothering kit foxes, a rare nocturnal predator whose habitat overlaps with Klondike Bluffs. The plan would ban gathering firewood at Klondike Bluffs and leaving human feces in the wild.

The Klondike proposal is part of a recently completed plan to build five campgrounds providing 105 sites that would cost $20 a night. The other four are on the Mineral Bottom Road; Black Ridge Road, 12 miles south of Moab; Cameo Cliffs, 25 miles south of Moab; and Utah Rims, near the Westwater Road south of Interstate 70.

But before any work begins on any of these projects, the BLM must line up funding, which has been scarce despite booming recreational use on Utah’s public lands.