How Delicate Arch was saved by bureaucratic stonewalling

 

"There have been some, even in the Park Service, who advocate spraying Delicate Arch with a fixative of some sort — Elmer's glue perhaps or Lady Clairol Spray Net." Believe it or not, that’s what Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire, and when I first read that, I thought he was kidding.

The idea of spraying a fixative on the sandstone icon of Arches National Park in the Utah desert was too ridiculous to be taken seriously. This, of course, was before my decade of employment with the federal government.

During my first winter as a ranger at Arches, when the tourists were few and far between, I spent much of my day rummaging through file cabinets. One day, a folder caught my eye because its label read: "Delicate Arch Stabilization Project." I couldn't believe my eyes.

What I found inside was a decade's worth of memos, letters and reports, all dedicated to the question: Should the Park Service save Delicate Arch from imminent collapse? The issue was first raised by custodian Russ Mahan in 1947, in a memo to the regional director.

On a recent hike, Mahan said, he’d noticed "the eroded condition of the east leg of Delicate Arch ... If we lost this arch we would be losing one of the most important features of Arches National Monument."

Mahan seemed convinced that the collapse of Delicate Arch might take away any incentive to visit the place at all. The letter got the ball rolling, but just barely. Mahan's concerns went to Washington. "There was," he added, "the possibility that (the) condition of the formation may endanger visitors there." But the threat of an arch squashing innocent tourists was still not enough to elicit much interest.

Eighteen months later, interest was rekindled when Southwest Regional Assistant Director Hugh Miller visited the arch: "I have decided to join, as a result of this trip, those who believe that stabilization of Delicate Arch is warranted." But then came the Park Service’s landscape architect, David Van Pelt, who was the first to see that meddling with Mother Nature might backfire. "It should be realized," Van Pelt wrote, "that the wisdom and success of whatever action may or may not be taken to stabilize the arch can never be accurately appraised."

Van Pelt proposed doing nothing, on the grounds that "more harm than benefit may be done," or barring that, to spray "the weak leg with a silicone epoxy." That was enough for agency higher-ups in Globe, Ariz. They contacted silicone manufacturers all over the country.

Meanwhile, the staff at Arches appeared to be hiding from the entire project. Arches Superintendent Bates Wilson's signature, for example, is conspicuously absent from all correspondence during the 1950s. Yet memos flowed asking Bates for details about the kind of silicone he’d bought, and if more money were needed to complete the job on Delicate Arch’s bum leg. Bates kept mum. In 1954, the acting general superintendent sent Bates one more memo. "Will you please," he pleaded, "make a special report on this project at your very earliest convenience?"

Bates apparently continued to stonewall, and the subject died. Then in 1956, a visitor to Arches wrote to the Park Service director and started the ball rolling again by warning that if Delicate Arch weren’t stabilized, "millions yet unborn" might not see the arch. Incredibly, the tourist suggested "that a clear, erosion- resistant material could be sprayed on." An acting regional director said the agency was on top of the problem, though later in 1956, the tourist was told that "more years of experimentation were needed."

With that, the idea finally collapsed. Bates Wilson, in particular, simply outlasted the bureaucrats. No one loved Delicate Arch more than Wilson, but the idea of using an orchard sprayer to seal it with silicone never appealed to his common sense. He continued to worry about Delicate Arch, but not from the standpoint of its collapse.

In a report filed not long after the worried-visitor letter, Bates wrote that "the increasing desire of fools to carve their names in public places has reached the highest level possible in Arches at Delicate Arch."

Fifty years later, the wind and the rain continue to sculpt the arch, picking away at it grain by grain. Idiots with big egos and no brains still come to the arch to scratch their names on it, but yes, the arch is still standing.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the publisher of the Canyon Country Zephr in Moab, Utah.