A delicate question: When is an arch crowded?
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.
The park 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 restricted.
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 Plateau.
"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 Arch.
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 acceptable.
"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.
Researchers 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 best.
"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 experience."
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 gone.
"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.
In response 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 season.
"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 year.
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 situation."
Staff will begin to implement the plan in March.
* Christopher Smith
The writer works for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Comments may be addressed to: Superintendent Noel Poe, P.O. Box 907, Moab, UT 84532.