National parks are essential to who we are as Americans. In Utah they drive our economy, and are part of our identity as lucky Westerners who get to live in places where most people only get to visit on vacation.
The popularity of our parks has led to serious congestion that is dangerously degrading the national park experience for locals and visitors alike. The problem is systemic throughout many parks and is not limited to the entrance gates. It is not a question of improving or redesigning transportation into the parks, but rather how to better distribute visitation over time, both throughout the day and throughout the year.
Today, if you pick the wrong time to visit Arches National Park, you could be at the entrance gate for one to three hours. Once finally in the park you could drive around for another hour or two and not find a place to park your car. When you do finally get out of the car you could be walking back-to-back with other visitors for your entire visit. And in Zion, for example, you wait at the entrance gate, you wait at the bus stop, and finally you hike in a crowd — the entire visit is about waiting and crowds.
Reservation systems have successfully been implemented on public lands from coast to coast, from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to remote backcountry areas like the Enchantment Permit Area in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state. Special places around the world are using technology to improve visitor experiences of all types. Providing reservations does not decrease demand, in fact it is just the opposite. Improving the experience makes it more sought after. While many other suggestions have been made to handle congestion in Arches — from electric jeeps, to building costly alternative entrance roads, to creating new hikes in places where there are no arches — the best solution for Arches is a reservation system.
Nobody likes waiting in line, and Utah should be pioneering best practices for managing outdoor recreation to minimize congestion. A reservation system will allow everyone to plan their day, and will vastly improve the outdoor experience. Hotels and restaurants in the private sector use both pricing and reservations to manage demand. The national parks are run for the benefit of all Americans; to provide universal access to the most important examples of our natural and cultural heritage, regardless of visitors’ financial means. Hence, pricing should not be used to discourage visitation, while reservations are the ideal tool for efficiently managing quality visitation for everyone.
In Utah, we don’t always like change and we definitely don’t like losing any freedoms. A reservation system for Arches National Park may feel a bit risky, but we need to adopt the attitude Mitt Romney had during the 2002 Olympics — no traffic jams or endless lines. In fact, I remember being on the way to the men’s downhill at Snow Basin, and there was Gov. Romney on the interstate directing traffic to avoid a slow down. Let’s channel that can-do attitude and use today’s technology to manage visitation to our parks and lead the nation in providing quality outdoor recreation experiences.
Welcoming visitors to our incredible Utah landscape will be a growing segment of our economy far into the future. We cannot wait around for other states and other parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone to solve their congestion problems. Instead Utah should take the opportunity to lead on this issue and work with the National Park Service to welcome a reservation system in Arches.
Ashley Korenblat is CEO of Western Spirit Cycling, Moab.