The Dalton Wells area north of Moab is known as the discovery site of the Utahraptor, a species of dinosaur that lived in the Early Cretaceous period. The scenic desert landscape overlooks green-tinted hills and is an access point for trail systems and a popular spot for dispersed camping.
But in recent years, frequent use has made the area known for other things: litter, human waste and trampled vegetation and soil.
A Utah legislator has proposed a state park at the site, but that plan now appears stalled due to lack of funding. The state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which oversees the land, is planning a developed campground in Dalton Wells to both accommodate the need for camping and also to protect the area’s natural beauty and resources.
New campground in the works
Tony Mancuso is the Sovereign Lands Coordinator for the Moab office of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He is spearheading the campground project, but he emphasized that getting the project done right is more important than getting it done quickly.
“I’m committed to getting the campground built, but it’s a moving target at this point,” Mancuso said of the project timeline.
Mancuso said the campground will definitely include vault toilets and shade structures, after users prioritized those improvements in a survey. As of now, there are no plans for water or electricity.
Grand County considers partnership
FFSL has approval to use $350,000 of their funds toward constructing a campground at Dalton Wells, but their program statutes do not allow them to collect campground fees. In order to institute fees that would fund operation of the campground, the division is pursuing a partnership with Grand County in which the county would maintain and administer the facility.”
Mancuso pointed to the partnership between the county and the Bureau of Land Management at Sand Flats Recreation Area as the successful result of “really thoughtful planning” over the last 30 years. There, the BLM owns the land, but the park is operated by the county; the park director and staff are county employees.
County Administrator Chris Baird has been working with Mancuso to determine whether the county will realistically be able to take on maintenance and operations of a new campground.
Grand County has also been considering applying for a grant from the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation for $100,000 to put toward the campground. However, accepting that grant would require Grand County to commit to maintaining the area for 10 years.
Before making such a commitment, county leaders want to make sure taking on the campground is feasible. Part of the evaluation involves determining the correct number of campsites: too many, and the use fees will not pay for the operation and maintenance of them; too few, and they won’t meet user needs.
“If we do too few campsites and then try to enforce ‘no dispersed camping,’ then people are going to fire back and say the number of legal campsites is inadequate to the need,” said Baird.
The camping fees must also be calibrated correctly: high enough to cover operational costs, but modest enough that users are willing to pay.
“The big issue is that Grand County doesn’t want to take on something that’s going to require subsidization,” explained Baird.
Sand Flats is able to sustain itself on the fees it collects, but Baird also noted that the Dalton Wells area is more remote than Sand Flats.
“It’s been unregulated for so long, and it takes a while to get an area under compliance,” Baird added.
Mancuso said the county is the Division’s “strongest partner” and he is willing to be flexible and devise an arrangement that the county can agree to.
“I love the idea of finding a local solution here that benefits our community immediately and isn’t something that’s put together in a rush where nobody wins,” Mancuso said.
Baird hopes the county will be able to step in.
“If we can swing it, it would be ideal if Grand County could do it,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s viable from a financial standpoint.”
State park still possible
In the 2020 general legislative session, Utah Representative Steve Eliason (R) of District 45 proposed that the Dalton Wells area be designated as Utahraptor State Park to protect and celebrate the abundant paleontological resources found there.
Legislators and the Division of State Parks were broadly in support of the concept, but were hesitant to approve a state park designation without adequate funding to operate and manage the area to state park standards. The park would require a one-time funding package of an estimated $10 million dollars to install the infrastructure necessary to get started: water, sewer, power, and improved roads, as well as some trailheads and an entrance station.
“The good news is we did have strong support for the bill,” said Eliason. “I’d much rather have funding issues than policy issues.”
However, securing that funding may be more difficult as the coronavirus pandemic takes a toll on the economy.
Eliason said he is considering re-introducing the bill in the 2021 general session, depending on the fiscal outlook.
“If it looks like there is very little chance of it getting funded, I may not spend the time pursuing it again,” Eliason said of the bill.
“If we have to start cutting social service programs, we’re probably not going to fund a state park,” he said.
Mancuso said the campground will be built to state park standards and could be incorporated into the state park if it becomes a reality.
Once construction does begin, Mancuso said it shouldn’t take more than four or five months to install shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. While he would like to see construction begin as early as next year, Mancuso doesn’t consider that a deadline. He’s willing to move slowly during the planning process to make sure the actual campground is a success.
“We’re committed to making sure that this project makes sense and that it benefits the resources and the community,” Mancuso said. “Smart, well-designed projects take time.”