In 1927, a gathering of huge sandstone windows in Utah was set aside by presidential proclamation and named Arches National Monument. Now a national park, its 75,000 acres welcome almost 800,000 tourists a year, who come from all over the world to look with awe.
This marvelous place must be well
protected by federal laws and regulations, right? Wrong.
Arches has an Achilles' heel; in fact, two of them: There are
practically no rules regulating technical rock climbing or
commercial day-use operations. These loopholes have combined to
threaten the park's mostly untouched backcountry.
1999, Arches National Park has allowed off-trail tours into
sensitive locations that include technical rappels down into a
series of canyons. Expansion bolts, pounded into the rock at
several sites, provide anchor points for some of the rappels. Now,
a "canyoneering" company operates five different commercial tours
inside the park.
Until 2002, day-use commercial
operations at Arches didn't even require a permit. As for the
park's climbing policy, climbers are simply encouraged to abide by
"a clean climbing ethic," according to a 1988 superintendent's
If a visitor walks up to a sandstone fin and
scratches his name into it with a car key, he'll be ticketed and
fined. But if he pulls out a bag of bolts and a hand drill and
starts pounding them into the rock, a park ranger can legally do
nothing. No other national park in southern Utah has such a weak
The question of unlimited commercial
backcountry operations is even more troubling and could have even
greater long-term consequences. Some national parks, such as Zion
in southwest Utah, recognize this danger and ban all backcountry
At Arches, the precedent is that
almost anything goes. In 1998, then-superintendent Walt Dabney gave
his tacit approval to a potential tour operator, explaining that
while "commercial technical rock-climbing is prohibited, commercial
canyoneering is allowed and managed under our commercial
backpacking and hiking regulations."
technical rock climbing as "ascending or descending a rock
formation utilizing rock-climbing equipment. " He defined
canyoneering as "cross-country travel involving occasional
ascending or descending a rock formation utilizing rock-climbing
In that language there lies the problem, for,
as he put it, the distinction between technical rock climbing and
canyoneering "can be ambiguous."
To suggest that these
commercial tours include "occasional" rappels as if they were an
afterthought is ludicrous. The technical rock-climbing aspect of
the tour is why most people take the tour. Clearly, this is a
commercial, technical rock-climbing business. But it sticks to the
"descending" aspect of the climb only, which requires much less
technical skill than going both up and down.
In 2002, the
Park Service at Arches began issuing a one-year Incidental Business
Permit to canyoneering companies. The permit seemed to ignore
concerns raised by its own environmental screening form, which asks
for detailed information about cumulative impacts.What happens, for
instance, when a business expands? What would stop a company from
rapidly multiplying the number of tours it offers? What would stop
a company from exploiting every backcountry region of Arches
National Park? These questions have not been answered, and the
permit is now up for renewal.
No one knows for sure how
canyoneering will change Arches, but I think there's a precedent
for what might happen. Forty years ago, the commercial
river-running industry was in its infancy. No one dreamed that in a
short decade or two, commercial river use would explode. Motorized
trips through the canyons allowed many companies to significantly
increase their business and, of course, with increased traffic came
increased impacts. The silence and peace of the river became things
of the past.
By the time the Park Service attempted to
deal with the motorized river industry, it was too late. It was
entrenched, had gained political clout, and to this day has not
been eliminated. The river companies are highly regulated and yet
the Colorado River is overused. You can't run thousands of visitors
through a wilderness and say it's a wilderness experience. It's a
That, ultimately, is what
canyoneering companies offer. It's up to the Park Service and the
public to decide if intense backcountry use for fun and profit is
appropriate for wild lands. It's early, but right now the Park
Service is sliding into a pattern it may not be able to change.