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Know the West

Moab area acts to regain control of public lands


MOAB, Utah - Visitors flock here like swallows returning to Capistrano, decked out in spring plumage of spandex, their vehicles sprouting bike racks and kayaks.

Locals call this the "silly season" in Utah's southeastern canyon country. But thanks to a dramatic change in visitor management at several of the area's most popular attractions, this season will be a lot less silly.

For the first time, recreationists heading into Sand Flats - home of the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail - must pay an entrance fee.

"We've noticed that just by having the contact station at Sand Flats, it's like somebody is watching, and people seem to have a greater inclination not to trash the area," says Brad Palmer, Bureau of Land Management Grand Resource Area manager.

Sand Flats is just the latest public-land hotspot around Moab to be subjected to new visitation controls. At Arches National Park, parking areas are being monitored to prevent "social crowding" (HCN, 3/6/95).

The Colorado Riverway along state Route 128 also has fallen under stricter management. Camping is no longer allowed anywhere on the riverbanks, but is restricted instead to designated undeveloped campsites or a series of improved sites clustered near toilets, picnic tables and fire rings. Campers not staying in improved areas must have a reusable toilet system.

But Sand Flats is perhaps the most innovative effort to control overcrowding and trampling around Moab. Located just east of the town's cemetery, the 7,240-acre home of slickrock mountain biking and the Porcupine Jeep Trail has been a growing headache for Grand County and the BLM. During Easter break 1993, partying teens staged a near-riot while camped in the desert outback between two wilderness-study areas (HCN, 9/5/94, p. 20).

After success with a temporary check station during spring break last year, the county and BLM decided to make Sand Flats a permanent fee area as of March 1.

Funding for the contact station is shared by Grand County and by the national AmeriCorps service initiative, President Clinton's fledgling domestic Peace Corps.

"This is the first year for the AmeriCorps program in the country, and the Sand Flats project really fits with the community-service aspect of the program," says Craig Bigler, AmeriCorps coordinator in Moab. "We have nine college-age employees, and they're all local. You're not usually allowed to have locals in the AmeriCorps project, but we have such a housing shortage here that locals are really the only ones who can afford to work for us and still have a place to live."

Vehicles entering the Sand Flats area are charged $3 for two people, and $1 for each additional passenger. Bicyclists are charged $1 to enter, and camping fees are $4 per night.

In one month of operation, the Sand Flats contact station collected more than $20,000.

"That shows you the kind of recreational pressure we're getting there," says Palmer. "All of the money collected goes directly into a county fund which has a steering committee to allocate the money for on-the-ground improvements, like more vault toilets and trail signs. All the money stays at Sand Flats."

Bigler says that while 90 percent of the recreation visitors favor the entrance fee to preserve the resource, others complain of having to pay to reach public lands that always have been open free of charge.

"You always have a few whiners," Bigler says, "but for most of them, if you point out that the money stays here instead of going back to Washington, that clinches it."

The writer works for the Salt Lake Tribune.