ARCHES NATIONAL PARK — A chaotic and dangerous traffic mess on Memorial Day weekend that forced an unprecedented temporary closure of Arches National Park has lit a fire under a big controversy: Should tourists be required to have a reservation before they can enter the national park?
The park's superintendent — concerned about a recent explosion of tourist visitation — has already won approval to begin charging higher entrance fees at peak times. Her proposal to initiate a reservation system, though, is drawing fierce opposition from the business community in Moab.
The brewing dispute over the future of the park— which seems to have been newly discovered by hundreds of thousands of tourists — seems to reflect a deep philosophical divide. On the one hand, local business interests argue that even larger crowds can be accommodated through a series of management and construction strategies. On the other hand, many park lovers would like to limit or re-direct the growing visitation in order to protect the park's natural resources and the quality of the "visitor experience."
The traffic crisis at the park entrance on the Saturday before Memorial Day marked the first time the park has ever been closed for traffic reasons and it threw a spotlight on the recent surge of visitors.
As events unfolded at the park entrance, the entire Moab area was experiencing what many residents say was the heaviest traffic — by far — that they have ever seen. For much of the weekend, cars headed for many destinations in the region created bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way through town for a distance of several miles. Many residents say they were astounded by what they saw.
"I have been here now for 35 years and I have never seen a situation that I saw this (Memorial Day) weekend in the town," said Marion DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council.
North of Moab, at the turnoff to Arches National Park, it was a traffic nightmare. Traffic backed up from the park entrance left large numbers of cars jammed up in turning lanes and travel lanes on U.S. 191, according to Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Scott Robertson.
"They were still letting people in as fast as they could," Robertson said, but "there were several miles of backups on the highway." With so many other drivers trying to travel past the entrance to different destinations, the potential for accidents was high.
"It was scary," the lieutenant said.
"And they (the UHP) are the ones that took action to close the entrance to Arches," said Kate Cannon, superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. "They saw hazardous conditions building on Highway 191, and they needed to provide for traffic safety."
Cannon emphasized that the park was not closed because of overcrowding but because of the safety issues just outside the entrance.
The recent surge in tourism is attributed to several factors, including lower gasoline prices, a recovering economy, effective promotion and — in Utah at least — pent-up demand for outdoor recreation after weeks of rain.
As usual though, the park continues to be visited by huge numbers of tourists from out of state and from foreign countries.
"We've just been amazed by the absolute beauty of it," said Lisa Aragon, who visited a few days after Memorial Day with her family from Colorado Springs. "This is spectacular. This is amazing," echoed her husband, Mario Aragon.
Cannon said park visitation has steadily increased in recent years, rising by a couple of percent a year for the past decade.
"And then 2014 happened," Cannon said, "and it exploded."
Visitation last year rose 20 percent and it's already exceeding that rate of increase in 2015. Cannon predicts total visitation this year will exceed 1.5 million, up from 1 million just five years ago.
"I would say that level of visitation is beyond our current capacity," Cannon said.
Some tourists are drawn by the Utah Travel Council's visually stunning promotion on the "Mighty Five" national parks in Utah. Ohio tourist Gary Wyatt, who saw the promotional advertisement several times, said it added to his decision to visit several national parks in Utah.
"We really couldn't believe how beautiful Utah is," he said.
The uneven timing of tourist visits complicates the planning process. At peak times, parking areas inside the park are so overloaded that the paved roads are lined with illegally parked cars. Trails and scenic viewpoints are often crowded as well. At off-times and off seasons, though, the park is nearly empty.
That's why Cannon pushed for a plan to charge higher fees — in the busy season — between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. She hopes it will spread out the tourist load to reduce congestion. National Park Service officials in Washington evidently agree.
"We actually have got the go-ahead to start doing that this season," Cannon said.
"We think that's a good first solution," said DeLay. But as head of the Moab Area Travel Council, she is less than thrilled with another of Cannon's ideas: requiring reservations to get in the park during tourist season.
"I think that they will tell their friends, like, 'We got here and they wouldn't let us in the park,'" DeLay said. "And people will not look to (go to) the parks. They will just not do that."
Defending her proposal, Cannon said, "We would give visitors certainty so they would know before they got here that they would get into Arches National Park."
Motel and lodge owner Colin Fryer thinks a reservation system would be complicated and expensive.
"It's a huge undertaking, and the chances for mistakes are large," Fryer said. "And it's going to basically put out the 'Not Welcome' sign. It's going to make it so hard to visit that they're not going to visit."
Fryer thinks the park should do more to accommodate crowds. He points to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, which provide a good visitor experience for much larger hordes of tourists. He said the National Park Service at Arches should create more parking, access roads, trails, picnic areas and other user-friendly features to encourage tourists to spread out inside the park.
Cannon emphasizes the need to spread visitors out in a different way: to other times and seasons and to other scenic areas outside the park.
In July, the park service is launching a public planning process to consider various growth-management strategies at Arches. Cannon promises that the public will have a substantial opportunity to provide input before final decisions are made.