Canyonlands cyclists

Mountain bikers on the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park. [Photo courtesy of the National Park Service]

The National Park Service is proposing to implement a day-use permit system for all motorized vehicles and bicycles on the White Rim and Elephant Hill roads in Canyonlands National Park.

The Shafer Trail between Potash and the Island in the Sky district would not be affected by the proposal.

The proposal, which is open for public comment, is designed to protect resources, as well as visitors' experiences, according to National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon.

“We want to be able to provide an uncrowded backcountry experience,” Cannon told the Moab Sun News. “That's our biggest issue here.”

Cannon said that the trend for day use is growing and that a permit system will allow the park to have a better grasp on the numbers of people who are visiting the area.

“A permit system also gives us an opportunity to educate our visitors so that they can better prepare for the safety and enjoyment of their trip,” she said.

But some local residents believe that the additional layer of bureaucracy would hinder people's ability to access the scenic backcountry, while diminishing their experience of freedom in a wilderness setting. They also question whether a need for the system has been established, and if the plan isn't designed as another source of revenue for the park.

“This will be one more obstacle people have to jump through to get into the backcountry,” local outfitter Jason Taylor said. “The White Rim is the iconic thing of Canyonlands, kind of like Delicate Arch (in Arches National Park), people want to drive it and the park service is proposing to cut off access.”

Cannon said that the permit numbers being proposed allow room for growth and that there won't be a “roll back” in use. She said she doesn't anticipate anyone being denied access.

The agency is proposing to set a limit of 50 day-use vehicle permits and 50 bicycle permits for the White Rim. Group size would be limited to three vehicles and 15 bicycles on each permit. A total of 24 day-use vehicle permits and 12 bicycle permits would be issued each day for Elephant Hill.

Permits would be available in advance through online registration, or by walk-in at the visitors center, and would be free for the 2015-16 season. After that, a fee would likely be charged to pay for administrative costs and backcountry patrols in the areas, Cannon said.

Taylor questioned whether a need for the permit system had been established.

“The park says they're going to do this, they're saying there is a need, but they haven't shown why,” Taylor said. “Where is this coming from?”

Former park superintendent Walt Dabney said that the day-use permit proposal is a natural extension of the Canyonlands Backcountry Management Plan that he and his staff implemented in 1994. The plan set limits on the number of people that could camp along the White Rim Road and over Elephant Hill in the Needles District.

“Before that, it was out of control,” Dabney told the Moab Sun News. “We had over 200 people camped out over Elephant Hill one weekend.”

Dabney said that though the Backcountry Management Plan only regulated overnight use, it anticipated the need to regulate day use in the future. He said the plans goals were twofold: to protect the resource, and to preserve the opportunity for solitude.

“This is a premiere backcountry experience, and that experience is being compromised by unregulated day-use traffic,” he said. “You can never have peace and quiet out there with a constant parade of vehicles passing by that are going to be back in town that night.”

Moab resident Jenna Woodbury, who has done several trips around the White Rim on a mountain bike, including many in one day, likes the freedom of being able to jump on her bike and just go.

“I appreciate the fact that riding the trail in a day is simple and straightforward. I need to carry extra water, food and my park pass,” Woodbury said. “I wonder whether this has been proposed because of a big increase in day use and visitor complaints or whether it is more a matter of creating a new revenue source.”

The White Rim Trail is a remote and scenic 110-mile route that circumnavigates the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. The trail follows the rims of the Green and Colorado rivers and is named after the distinctive White Rim Sandstone over which most of the route passes. It is accessed via the Shafer Trail, Potash Road, or down the switchbacks into Mineral Bottom.

Most users do the trip over a period of a few days, staying at designated campsites along the way. But an increasingly popular activity is to ride the entire route in one day on a bicycle. Motorcyclists and some four-wheel drive vehicles also travel the 100-plus miles in a day.

Other day uses on the White Rim include a drive out to Musselman Arch or Lathrop Canyon, and rock climbers often drive out to climb one of the famed desert towers such as Washerwoman, Moses and Zeus.

Elephant Hill is a challenging four-wheel drive obstacle that allows access into the remote Needles backcountry and an overlook of the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Local rock climbers John Rzeczycki and Kiley Miller support the idea of day-use permits to protect the resource and visitor experience, but they are skeptical of the park service's motivation.

“This is needed to protect the region,” Miller said. “Overcrowding is an issue and this is just the reality we need to accept.”

Rzeczycki thinks the park isn't going far enough with its number restrictions, and he isn't happy about having to pay an additional fee to go into the backcountry for the day after he has already paid an entrance fee.

“The allowed numbers are too high,” he said. “This seems like more of a ploy to generate revenue rather than to protect or enhance the backcountry experience.”

Dabney said that he applauds the Park Service's proactive stance before it turns into a big problem.

“Set some reasonable limits and then you don't have to put it back into the bottle,” he said. “You don't do it after you've already lost it.”

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