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.
Since 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 directive.
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 climbing policy.
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 commercial operations.
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."
Dabney defined 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 equipment."
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 recreational experience.
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.