Faced with ever-increasing hordes of visitors, Canyonlands National Park recently issued a bold management proposal to protect its still-pristine backcountry. The plan calls for closing some jeep roads, reducing horse numbers, and restricting where and how hikers travel.
officials say they weren't surprised at the stack of angry comments
from commercial outfitters, but they didn't expect such vehement
opposition from the Colorado Outward Bound School and the National
Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), both traditional allies of
In fact, Outward Bound and NOLS
were so outraged that they have complained to attorneys, Congress,
the Department of the Interior and the park itself, asking for a
more lenient management plan.
"We don't deny that
the park needs to better manage recreation," says Jimbo Buickerood
of Colorado Outward Bound School. "But there should be some space
and grace for wilderness education because we build constituents
and teach people how to take care of the land. This plan would
eliminate us. It's not well thought-out."
two decades, the wilderness education schools have used Canyonlands
as a classroom, at times bringing groups as large as 17 into remote
areas and hiking there for weeks. Among the skills imparted to
students are "minimum-impact" camping, state-of-the-art waste
disposal and other backcountry living
"Wilderness education is part of the
solution, not part of the problem," says Chad Henderson, who
directs public policy for NOLS. "Our position is that you can
reduce impacts to resources and still allow recreation to continue
at a reasonable level."
But park officials say a
footprint is a footprint, a poop is a poop, and there are simply
too many people in a fragile ecosystem. Since 1984, visitors to the
park have increased 400 percent, with more and more venturing off
The park's proposed management plan would
reduce the size of backpacking parties from 12 to six in some
zones, allow fewer groups in any given area at one time, and close
some reaches of the park to camping
"We do not have sustainable numbers
of people right now," says Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist for
the park and the National Biological Survey. "Biologically, you
cannot convince me there is any way to camp ecologically with a
Belnap says her principal concern
is the desert's fragile soil, which fixes nitrogen and holds
moisture. "Heavily trampled soil is, quite literally, sterile. The
ecosystem will shut down. One footprint and you've wrecked a piece
of soil for decades," she says.
large groups ought to be more controlled," says Grand County
Councilman Charlie Peterson, who supports the park's proposal.
"I've followed after these groups when I'm hiking, and it's an ugly
thing to get that many people in one area. The more people, the
more impact. That's the bottom line."
and Outward Bound officials argue that there is no reliable
research proving large groups cause more damage than small groups.
They contend their students are good stewards and have every right
to use the park. Using tactics and arguments not dissimilar to
those of other beleaguered users of public lands, the schools have
rallied their forces to fight the Canyonlands
"We've been using Canyonlands since before
it was a national park," says Lenore Anderson, Outward Bound's
director of environmental resources. "We stand to lose a big chunk
of our program. We thought this plan could set a precedent, and we
realized we had a battle to fight."
NOLS" Henderson took their complaints to higher-ups in the
government. They went to the assistant director of the Park
Service's regional office in Denver, then to Destry Jarvis, special
assistant to National Park Service director Roger Kennedy in
Washington, D.C., and then to Rep. Bruce Vento's staff on the
Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public
"They've been playing some hardball,
trying to go to anybody who could roll me," says park
superintendent Walt Dabney. "I'm a little surprised at their
reaction, considering their own literature states that small group
size is better for the environment."
a point. NOLS co-produced with the U.S. Forest Service a Leave No
Trace brochure which says: "Small groups are ideal in open areas
such as deserts ... Plan to travel and camp with fewer than 8-10
people that can be divided into hiking groups of 2-4 during the
Henderson says NOLS is getting better
about traveling in small groups. The organization just reduced its
standard group size from 20 to 17, he says, and in Canyonlands to
12. Large groups hike in smaller units, he
But a limit of six people in one zone would
be unworkable for the schools. "Basically, if we're limited to six
people including instructors, we can't economically run a trip,"
says Outward Bound's Anderson.
Last winter, both
NOLS and Outward Bound sent alerts to trip alumni asking them to
comment on the park's draft backcountry plan. Outward Bound also
asked its instructors to write letters, warning, "a precedent may
be set for other national parks and even for wilderness areas, one
that could ultimately spell the demise of wilderness education as
we know it."
But not all instructors agree with
the school's position. "Anybody who's worked in the field knows
that the larger the group, the more impacts you have," says Outward
Bound instructor Howard Passell, who also directs an education
program in Canyonlands for troubled youths. "I'm all for cutting
back overall numbers, even if it means we get cut out. The park is
a limited resource and it's becoming overused."
This summer, the staff at Canyonlands will read
the 2,000 comments generated by the draft plan. Superintendent
Dabney says he hopes to have a final backcountry management plan
ready by next spring. "The final will look different from the
draft," he says. "But if we end up tweaking any numbers, it will be
because we still feel okay about them. We want to do the right
thing for the resource."
Former HCN staff
reporter Florence Williams free-lances in Steamboat Springs,