MOAB, Utah — After a drop in visitation last year because of the pandemic, tourists are back in full force at Arches National Park and they’re wreaking havoc.
The park is on track to have its busiest year ever, and that increase in visitation has caused the park to become so full that rangers have had to turn away tourists over 80 times so far in 2021.
“This year has been over the top with new visitors who really are not educated as to how to appropriately recreate,” said Joette Langianese, director of the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, a nonprofit that helps fundraise and advocate for both parks. “For example, throwing garbage just on the ground and not in the garbage can, or walking off the trail or stepping on the [cryptobiotic] soil.”
Langianese said those are the kinds of things rangers are supposed to monitor, but the sheer number of visitors is making it hard.
“It just doesn’t give the rangers the opportunity to really provide that kind of education, because they’re just getting by, because it’s just so busy in the park,” she said.
Two other popular national parks in the West — Rocky Mountain and Yosemite — implemented reservation systems last year during the pandemic. Both brought reservations back this summer in anticipation of record visitation.
Park advocates along with Moab and Grand County officials say a similar system could help alleviate congestion and protect Arches. But efforts to implement a timed-entry system there have failed in the past.
Langianese said a reservation system would spread visitors out over the course of the day during the high season, so the park isn’t swamped. People would reserve a time slot online in which to show up. Then, once they’re in the park, they can stay as long as they want.
She said the park could reserve some tickets to sell the day before, to locals and those who aren’t able to get reservations ahead of time. It could also allow visitors to enter the park early in the morning or late in the evening without a reservation.
“Let’s just try it, see how it works,” Langianese said. “If it works great — great. If there are some problems, we can tweak it or just not do it anymore.”
The former superintendent of Arches proposed a similar fix in 2015. Businesses in Moab pushed back, saying it could scare people away. Then a 2018 study commissioned by the Park Service found the change could drain up to $22 million from Moab’s economy in its first year. That put the idea on hold indefinitely.
Grand County Commissioner Mary McGann is convinced the study was wrong.
She cited the town of Estes Park, Colo., as proof. Its sales tax revenue actually increased after nearby Rocky Mountain National Park implemented its reservation system.
“It’s helped their economy because people, instead of standing in line, are downtown, walking the streets, going into the shops, having a late breakfast, all sorts of things,” McGann said.
The Moab City Council and the Grand County Commission voted in May to send a letter to the park service asking it to implement timed entry at Arches.
Chet Kleinot and his wife recently were turned away three times before they got into Arches, after waiting in line for an hour. They were receptive to the idea of timed entry, but they had some concerns.
“What if you didn’t know about it? So it was almost like every hotel would have to tell you when you checked in, you know what I mean?” Kleinot said.
That was a problem at Rocky Mountain National Park when it started timed-entry again this summer. The Denver Post reported people waited in line there for an hour before being turned away because they didn’t have a reservation. Some angry visitors even started a petition asking the park to ditch the reservation system.
Langianese said that will probably happen at Arches, too, if it implements timed entry. Still, she’s convinced it’s the right thing to do.
“We definitely want people to come here and enjoy our parks,” she said. “But we also want them to be able to experience the parks in a way that they can feel that solitude and that silence, so that they want to make sure that it stays the same.”