Since Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, it has been treasured for its wilderness solitude and pristine desert landscape. But skyrocketing visitation - a 14 percent increase annually since 1984 - is taking a toll. Ancient Indian artifacts are being vandalized. Crytobiotic crusts - crusty black organisms that grow on undisturbed desert sand and are absolutely essential to healthy plant and animal life - are being trampled. And visitors are finding it more and more difficult to find solitude or isolation as more and more hikers, jeepers and mountain bikers crowd the back country.

But we can help save Canyonlands from being loved to death. The Park Service has released a new draft backcountry management plan that seeks to control visitor impacts.The Canyonlands plan seeks to preserve solitude and prevent trampling while still accommodating visitors. The plan proposes a number of important measures that deserve public support, but it needs to be strengthened in key ways.

Unfortunately, the overall number of backcountry visitors allowed under the plan may be too high to truly protect park values. Trampling and overcrowding are already occurring at existing use levels, but the plan allows backcountry visitation to increase significantly.

Furthermore, the plan fails to place any restrictions on the group size or overall number of day users. This means that some areas, especially in the Needles and Island Districts, will continue to be heavily impacted by masses of day hikers and mountain bikers.

Terri Martin

National Parks and Conservation Association

Salt Lake City