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Know the West

Greens differ over plan to expand national park

 

Anyone who has wandered the convoluted canyons of Arches National Park knows this landscape doesn't lend itself to ruler-straight boundaries. But find the park on a map and you'll see a stair-stepped outline that cuts across canyons and over mesas.

Walt Dabney, the outspoken superintendent of both Arches and Canyonlands national parks, has been trying for years to redraw these boundaries to follow natural lines, rather than political ones. "Parks should be laid out using geography that makes some sense on the ground," he says.

Opportunity came this month, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would expand Arches by 3,140 acres. The bill, introduced by Utah's freshman Republican Rep. Chris Cannon, has the blessings of Grand County, the state of Utah and conservation groups such as the Grand Canyon Trust and the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA).

Cannon's bill would expand Arches to include Salt Wash, Lost Spring, Clover and Cordova canyons, and landmarks like Covert Arch and Beethoven's Amphitheater. The canyons are accessible from the trailhead to Delicate Arch and the park's only campground. They hold streams and marshes that are "probably more biologically rich than anywhere else in the park," according to Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust.

The Bureau of Land Management currently leases the canyons for livestock grazing, and cows trample streamside areas and springs, says Mark Peterson of the NPCA in Fort Collins, Colo. But if Congress approves the annexation plan, the rancher who runs cows in the canyons has agreed to sell his grazing permit. The deal would also trade out a parcel of school trust lands in the canyons.

"This doesn't finish Arches," says Superintendent Dabney, but, "you don't have to be a park planner to see that it should have been a part of the park all along."

Unexpected opposition

Ironically, the bill is meeting resistance from some of Utah's most avid wilderness supporters. At congressional hearings in September, Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance spoke out against the annexation. Since then, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society have joined the opposition.

"I just can't understand this," said Utah Rep. Jim Hansen at the hearings. "What am I missing here?"

What he's missing, says Groene, is the long-term impacts the expansion will have on the canyons and on the long-standing fight to protect Utah's wilderness. "At first blush, the proposal seems benign," he says. "But the on-the-ground consequences would be damaging."

Annexing the canyons would attract more visitors, says Groene. "Arches is our industrial windshield park," where most visitors drive through and spend little time in the backcountry. If the bill passes, the Park Service will have to accommodate more hikers and campers, he says.

Above all, SUWA's opposition is a matter of strategy. The group has been pushing a bill for a decade that would designate 5.7 million acres of BLM wilderness. The canyons in Cannon's bill are a part of a "wilderness study area" included in SUWA's bill, called HR 1500.

The Park Service has pledged to manage the area as wilderness, and the adjacent BLM land would still be eligible for wilderness designation. But the idea still worries Groene. "The way to resolve the wilderness fight is not to treat it unit by unit," he says.

While critics say SUWA's all-or-nothing approach has resulted in a stalemate with conservative county and state representatives, Groene insists his group has gained ground. In 1995, SUWA and its allies defeated a 1.8 million-acre wilderness bill sponsored by Utah Republicans, drawing national attention to the issue (HCN, 12/25/96). This year, HR 1500 has more sponsors than ever before: 125 in the House and nine in the Senate.

Even in Utah, the debate has shifted, says Groene. "The rallying call (for the opposition) used to be, 'No wilderness.' Now it's '2.5 million (acres).' " So SUWA supporters say they have good reason to stick to their guns.

Still, in the current political climate, many argue you have to take it where you can find it. "I don't see how (SUWA) can argue that keeping (the canyons) under the BLM is going to keep them better protected," says the NCPA's Peterson. "I don't see how 3,100 acres out of 5.7 million acres can upset the applecart."

The Arches expansion bill has a good chance of passing the Senate early next year.

You can ...

* Contact Scott Groene with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 1471 S. 1100 E., Salt Lake City, UT 84105 (801/486-3161), or,

* Contact Mark Peterson with the National Parks and Conservation Association, 100 Eagle Lake Dr., Fort Collins, CO 80524, [email protected] (970/493-2545).