BLM land: outstanding opportunities for crowding

  A year ago, Bureau of Land Management rangers in southern Utah stumbled upon a remote, never-looted Anasazi ruin. To protect the site, they decided not to publicize its existence, but agency staffers' jaws dropped recently when a tourist showed up at their office asking how to find "that new ruin you guys discovered."


"We have no idea how this man even knew about the site," says Philip Gezon, a recreational planner for the BLM's San Juan Resource Area, based in Monticello, Utah. "The ranger who had discovered the ruin just couldn't believe it."


Believe it.


The vast, arid holdings of the Colorado Plateau, once a backwater for solitude seekers, have been discovered. Armed with guidebooks, magazine articles, the Internet, even space-age Geographic Positioning Systems that navigate by satellite, adventure-seeking tourists have crept into practically every nook and cranny of this region of spectacular canyons and rock formations.


In the process, they are stretching the limits of the land and forcing a federal agency that has paid scant attention to recreation to become aggressive people managers.


It wasn't always this way. For decades, BLM managers concentrated on their forte: livestock grazing and mining. As recently as a decade ago, just a trickle of people explored Utah's remote canyon country via foot, horse or four-wheel drive - usually too few to cause significant damage. These days recreationists dominate the landscape and command the largest (though many say still inadequate) portion of the agency's resources.


"BLM lands have been a place where you can have a real adventure, an unfettered recreational experience," says Don Banks, a spokesman for the Utah BLM in Salt Lake City. "But we're running smack into reality in places like the Slickrock Trail, the Little Sahara Sand Dunes and Grand Gulch." These areas now draw hordes.


People used to visit places like Grand Gulch, a 54-mile series of canyons laced with Indian granaries and corn plots, primarily in the spring. Now they also come during the hot summer months and the mild fall season, says Gezon. Where only 500 people per year visited Grand Gulch in the 1970s, now at least 7,000 people walk or horseback ride the winding, waterfalled trail annually.


"People are pushing the envelope everywhere," Gezon says. "We have river guides leading trips down the San Juan River in February and March now."


Foreign tourists, especially German and French, have discovered southern Utah. Gezon says half the visitors to Arches National Park during the summer months are foreign, and he guesses the same ratio may hold for BLM lands. Often foreign tourists have no concept of how to treat wilderness or of the two essential tools they should bring to remote canyons - the fire pan, a flat metal surface on which fires can be built to protect sensitive desert soils, and the portable potty, Gezon says.


As the popular areas become trashed and overcrowded, people start searching for the next frontier. Tom Gnojek, a BLM recreation planner for the San Rafael Resource Area in Price, says already discovered recreation meccas, such as the town of Moab, act as epicenters, pushing waves of recreating tourists to outlying, less-used areas like the San Rafael Swell, a vast, contorted dome of multi-hued rock encompassing an area approximately 30 by 50 miles.


"People who used to bike down in Moab, but don't like the crowds, are now stopping by here and asking, "So what's it like biking the San Rafael Swell?" " he says.


In response, the BLM has shifted its management gears. No longer does the agency seek publicity about recreational opportunities on public lands: Guidebook and magazine writers have done more than an adequate job. "Last week I got calls from a guy working on an auto touring book, a company seeking to produce a guidebook in time for the Salt Lake City Olympics, and a German radio station," says Banks. "We're purely in the reactionary mode now."


BLM officials have even started a policy of silence about certain overused areas. "If I get a call from some writer wanting to know the top 10 bike trails on BLM lands, I leave out a few now," says Washington BLM spokesman Bob Johns. "The cream of our crop is really saturated."


One of those places is the Slickrock Trail, an internationally renowned mountain bike trail marked by the agency outside Moab. In 1994, the BLM counted 103,200 riders on the trail, up 23 percent from the year before. That's light-years beyond the approximately 10,000 riders tallied in the mid-1980s, says recreation planner Alex VanHemert.


The crowding and overuse has spawned a new approach. Working with Grand County officials and members of Americorps, one of the president's programs for youths, the BLM has cleaned up the trailhead parking area and set up a fee-collection system. VanHemert says most bikers have paid the fee, which can be as little as $3 for a three-day jaunt, once they learn the money goes into maintenance of the trail.


Along the Colorado River just east of Moab, the agency recently created formal campgrounds and set up privies to accommodate campers who had created an outdoor slum. In 1993, before the facilities were constructed, the agency recorded 1,400 people camping in the area. Now, with people staying in designated areas, the number of campers rarely tops 1,000, says VanHemert, and the vegetation is taking less of a beating.


Elsewhere, the BLM has started to close off sensitive areas to vehicles. Gnojek says a new travel-management plan for the San Rafael Swell will lead to road closures. But he concedes that signs or even gates can be easily ignored or bypassed by determined adventurers. And the agency doesn't have the resources to monitor its vast holdings: Just three outdoor recreation planners and a handful of summer rangers oversee the San Rafael Resource Area's 2.5 million acres.


"As our sensitivity and knowledge of the resource goes up, our capability to manage it goes down," says Philip Gezon. "One more budget hit, and I lose my seasonal people. They're the eyes and ears out there on the ground."


Gezon says the day is coming when the BLM will, as a matter of course, collect recreation fees, build campgrounds and raise money from the recreation-products industry to help the agency manage tourists and restore areas damaged by them. He notes that Congress is considering legislation that would allow the agency to keep 75 percent of collected recreation fees in certain pilot areas. Currently, the agency keeps only 15 percent of the fees. The rest goes to the federal treasury. But the BLM has opposed the bill because it fears conservative congress people will use it to justify deeper budget cuts.


Some environmentalists say more needs to be done. "The agency is so steeped in mining and grazing," says Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staffer Ken Rait, "that there is only a very fledgling generation of agency staffers who know anything about recreation.


"They ought to be out there issuing permits, limiting group size, making sure people know how to develop a relationship with the land without destroying it," he says. "I don't think the agency ought to promote these areas until it understands how to manage them."


Whether the BLM promotes the use of its lands or not, the people, it seems, will come.


"When people come up to me and ask, "Where do I go to get away from the crowds," I tell them, don't come within 20 miles of Moab during the spring or the fall," says Alex VanHemert.


Is there no end to this deluge of humanity on the Colorado Plateau? Responds VanHemert, "It doesn't appear that the sale of mountain bikes has peaked."


* Paul Larmer, HCN associate editor