Commentary: Here’s how to fix crowding at Arches National Park — without a reservation system

The Arches National Park proposal to require advance reservations is more concerned with protecting the land <i>from</i> the very people it is mandated to protect the land <i>for</i>.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune A family poses for a picture under Delicate Arch in Arches National Park Saturday March 5, 2016.

The biggest story in Moab is the proposal by Arches National Park to require advance reservations. The National Park Service cites traffic congestion as the reason, and it would make Arches National Park the very first major national park in the nation to require advance reservations.

Is there a better solution? Yes. The infrastructure of Arches National Park was conceived in the 1950s when we began our love affair with our private cars. Every infrastructure decision still favors private cars. This model of national park visitation is not sustainable. This model requires you to build huge parking lots everywhere you would like to facilitate visitors.

Let’s design the 21st century national park. A national park that prioritizes bicycles, public transport, and walking over private cars. Let’s design a national park that prioritizes choices that get people in touch with the sights, sounds, and vibrations of the Earth.

Today, Arches National Park is designed with one paved entrance, one major road and three major parking lots. The National Park Service brochure identifies 20 arches and 15 hikes. So, guess what? Everyone parks in those three parking lots and goes to see those 20 arches. This is congestion by design.

Do you know how many arches there are in Arches National Park? Take a guess … 50? 100? 200?

There are over 2,100 arches in the park. Awesome, right? So instead of perpetuating our culture that only values the largest, the longest, the tallest, let’s develop a more nuanced approach and highlight many more of the natural wonders of Arches National Park.

So what is our alternative plan? First, we create parking lots outside Arches at all three entrances, South Entrance, Willow Springs and Salt Valley, and improve these roads into the park. Then, we provide the option of visiting Arches by shuttle or bicycle.

We design a shuttle system that fixes the instant crowding each time the big shuttles arrive at a trailhead, by deploying two types of vehicles. Our big shuttles take you into Arches from the three entrances and will make only seven stops in the park. From there, our custom 10-passenger hybrid Jeep Transports take you to the sights and trailheads on a new network of dedicated narrow roadways. Presto, we solve instant congestion, promote dispersion of visitors and offer a really fun way to get around the park.

No new trails have been established in Arches National Park in at least 40 years. Let’s increase the number of hikes from 15 to 34, and make most of them with one-way hikes facilitated by our new Jeep Transports, which will drop you off and pick you up on each side. And for Delicate Arch, our icon, we’ll make the main trail a loop instead of the current out-and-back, decreasing congestion by 50 percent.

We build bike paths throughout Arches that enter at both Willow Springs and Salt Valley, bypassing the steep and narrow South Entrance. Our goal is to promote safe and fun travel by bike to all the sights. We rent bikes and e-bikes, with a share program so bikers, too, can enjoy the new one-way hikes.

Let’s reinvent the national park experience for the 21st century. Any national park discussion then leads to the question, “What is the purpose of our national parks?” The answer lies in the first sentence of the Congressional Organic Act of 1916, which established the National Park Service, enacted ”to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Notice that “conserve the scenery” and “provide for the enjoyment of the same” are equal. This is key. These lands are preserved so that we can enjoy them. The balance of these two equal jobs of the National Park Service is out of balance. The Arches National Park proposal to require advance reservations is more concerned with protecting the land from the very people it is mandated to protect the land for.

A 21st century vision for Arches National Park that prioritizes bicycles, public transport and walking over private cars will help restore the balance.

Michael Liss

Michael Liss was the managing director of Butterfield & Robinson, the luxury biking and walking outfitter, discovered the Fibonacci Spiral at the heart of Chaco Canyon and has returned to Moab to build a sustainable community called The Spirit of Cloud Rock. He is also chair of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee.