MOAB, Utah - Two's company, 30 is a crowd, visitors to Delicate Arch have told researchers trying to figure out how to protect the experience of viewing one of Utah's most famous natural attractions.
Using a pilot program that will
likely be adopted at other national parks, Arches National Park has
developed a method for measuring "social crowding' - the number of
people perceived as too many at one time at places such as Delicate
Arch, the Windows and Eye of the Whale.
near here plans to monitor visitors at various locales, and if
their numbers approach the social-crowding limit, the number of
parking places near the site will be
It is a controversial idea, but one
that many in the National Park Service believe is overdue, given
the throngs of tourists flocking into parks across the Colorado
"In the Park Service, we haven't worried
about how many people we can shove into a park attraction," says
Noel Poe, Arches superintendent and leader of the park's Visitor
Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) program. "What is
crowding to me may not be crowding to you."
After a year-long survey, Poe says the park now
knows what most people consider crowding at Delicate
Last fall and summer, people returning on
the trail from Delicate Arch filled out two questionnaires, and
then looked at 16 photographs of the formation. All photos had the
same vantage point, but each picture had varying numbers of
tourists, from nobody to a total of 108 people. Visitors were asked
which of the pictures represented an acceptable viewing experience
of the arch.
A majority of visitors said zero to
12 people at Delicate Arch was highly acceptable, 12 to 30 people
was still acceptable and more than 30 people was not
"What this tells us is that if we see
there's more than 30 people in the Delicate Arch area more than 10
percent of the time, we have reached our social capacity and we
have to do something," Poe says.
emphasized that "social crowding" depends a lot upon the individual
visitor. Jim Hammett, one of the VERP team members, said there is
concern that the majority opinion may not be the
"We did worry that we are managing for
mediocrity by drawing the acceptability line down the middle," says
Hammett. "There were a few people we surveyed who feel that having
two or three people in the Delicate Arch area is an unacceptable
Officials will also monitor
biological resources. Arches contains the largest concentration of
natural stone arches in the world - 2,000 or more - and the
legislation that created the park calls for protection of the
surrounding landscape as well.
That landscape is
primarily a fragile "cryptobiotic" soil crust, an intricate webbing
of bacteria, lichens, algae, mosses and fungi that provide the only
source of nutrients for other plant life. Visitors walking on the
crust ruin it, and in many popular places, all vegetation is
"In the Windows, people have a tendency to
get off trail a lot and the crust has been hammered so bad it is
nothing but sand," Hammett says. In response, Arches is proposing
to create a "sensitive resource protection" zone in areas where
human feet should never stray.
In all, the park
is proposing to create nine management zones to control social
crowding and resource damage. The largest zone is a "Primitive"
area, where no facilities are allowed and evidence of other
visitors is minimal. Back-country and Hiker zones would have
increasing trails and people, while Developed and Motorized zones
would allow facilities and vehicles.
to public comment, the new plan has strict guidelines prohibiting
any extensive new construction of trails or facilities in Arches.
While park officials won't restrict the number of people who enter
the park, Poe has announced that Arches rangers will begin strictly
enforcing rules that limit parking to designated spaces this coming
"We've lost control of the parking with
people parking along roads and creating turnouts," says Poe. "We
won't allow that anymore. If you're not in a designated space,
you'll receive a ticket."
Arches' plan calls for
limiting parking at the Delicate Arch trailhead to 64 spaces,
Windows' parking area to 35 spaces and Devil's Garden to 150
spaces. If those parking levels still create social crowding at
popular sites, Poe says, Arches may remove more parking spaces next
But Poe acknowledges that tourists intent
on seeing Delicate Arch on Memorial Day weekend may take a dim view
of strict parking laws. The increasing number of bus tours hitting
Arches creates more headaches.
"There are going
to be some people who can't get into parking lots during peak
holidays," says Poe. "We could be getting into a gridlock
Staff will begin to implement the
plan in March.
The writer works for the
Salt Lake Tribune.
Comments may be addressed to:
Superintendent Noel Poe, P.O. Box 907, Moab, UT