A year ago, Bureau of Land Management rangers in southern Utah stumbled upon a remote, never-looted Anasazi ruin. To protect the site, they decided not to publicize its existence, but agency staffers' jaws dropped recently when a tourist showed up at their office asking how to find "that new ruin you guys discovered."
"We have no idea how this man even
knew about the site," says Philip Gezon, a recreational planner for
the BLM's San Juan Resource Area, based in Monticello, Utah. "The
ranger who had discovered the ruin just couldn't believe it."
The vast, arid
holdings of the Colorado Plateau, once a backwater for solitude
seekers, have been discovered. Armed with guidebooks, magazine
articles, the Internet, even space-age Geographic Positioning
Systems that navigate by satellite, adventure-seeking tourists have
crept into practically every nook and cranny of this region of
spectacular canyons and rock formations.
process, they are stretching the limits of the land and forcing a
federal agency that has paid scant attention to recreation to
become aggressive people managers.
always this way. For decades, BLM managers concentrated on their
forte: livestock grazing and mining. As recently as a decade ago,
just a trickle of people explored Utah's remote canyon country via
foot, horse or four-wheel drive - usually too few to cause
significant damage. These days recreationists dominate the
landscape and command the largest (though many say still
inadequate) portion of the agency's
"BLM lands have been a place where you
can have a real adventure, an unfettered recreational experience,"
says Don Banks, a spokesman for the Utah BLM in Salt Lake City.
"But we're running smack into reality in places like the Slickrock
Trail, the Little Sahara Sand Dunes and Grand Gulch." These areas
now draw hordes.
People used to visit places like
Grand Gulch, a 54-mile series of canyons laced with Indian
granaries and corn plots, primarily in the spring. Now they also
come during the hot summer months and the mild fall season, says
Gezon. Where only 500 people per year visited Grand Gulch in the
1970s, now at least 7,000 people walk or horseback ride the
winding, waterfalled trail annually.
pushing the envelope everywhere," Gezon says. "We have river guides
leading trips down the San Juan River in February and March now."
Foreign tourists, especially German and French,
have discovered southern Utah. Gezon says half the visitors to
Arches National Park during the summer months are foreign, and he
guesses the same ratio may hold for BLM lands. Often foreign
tourists have no concept of how to treat wilderness or of the two
essential tools they should bring to remote canyons - the fire pan,
a flat metal surface on which fires can be built to protect
sensitive desert soils, and the portable potty, Gezon
As the popular areas become trashed and
overcrowded, people start searching for the next frontier. Tom
Gnojek, a BLM recreation planner for the San Rafael Resource Area
in Price, says already discovered recreation meccas, such as the
town of Moab, act as epicenters, pushing waves of recreating
tourists to outlying, less-used areas like the San Rafael Swell, a
vast, contorted dome of multi-hued rock encompassing an area
approximately 30 by 50 miles.
"People who used
to bike down in Moab, but don't like the crowds, are now stopping
by here and asking, "So what's it like biking the San Rafael
Swell?" " he says.
In response, the BLM has
shifted its management gears. No longer does the agency seek
publicity about recreational opportunities on public lands:
Guidebook and magazine writers have done more than an adequate job.
"Last week I got calls from a guy working on an auto touring book,
a company seeking to produce a guidebook in time for the Salt Lake
City Olympics, and a German radio station," says Banks. "We're
purely in the reactionary mode now."
officials have even started a policy of silence about certain
overused areas. "If I get a call from some writer wanting to know
the top 10 bike trails on BLM lands, I leave out a few now," says
Washington BLM spokesman Bob Johns. "The cream of our crop is
One of those places is the
Slickrock Trail, an internationally renowned mountain bike trail
marked by the agency outside Moab. In 1994, the BLM counted 103,200
riders on the trail, up 23 percent from the year before. That's
light-years beyond the approximately 10,000 riders tallied in the
mid-1980s, says recreation planner Alex VanHemert.
The crowding and overuse has spawned a new
approach. Working with Grand County officials and members of
Americorps, one of the president's programs for youths, the BLM has
cleaned up the trailhead parking area and set up a fee-collection
system. VanHemert says most bikers have paid the fee, which can be
as little as $3 for a three-day jaunt, once they learn the money
goes into maintenance of the trail.
Colorado River just east of Moab, the agency recently created
formal campgrounds and set up privies to accommodate campers who
had created an outdoor slum. In 1993, before the facilities were
constructed, the agency recorded 1,400 people camping in the area.
Now, with people staying in designated areas, the number of campers
rarely tops 1,000, says VanHemert, and the vegetation is taking
less of a beating.
Elsewhere, the BLM has started
to close off sensitive areas to vehicles. Gnojek says a new
travel-management plan for the San Rafael Swell will lead to road
closures. But he concedes that signs or even gates can be easily
ignored or bypassed by determined adventurers. And the agency
doesn't have the resources to monitor its vast holdings: Just three
outdoor recreation planners and a handful of summer rangers oversee
the San Rafael Resource Area's 2.5 million
"As our sensitivity and knowledge of the
resource goes up, our capability to manage it goes down," says
Philip Gezon. "One more budget hit, and I lose my seasonal people.
They're the eyes and ears out there on the ground."
Gezon says the day is coming when the BLM will,
as a matter of course, collect recreation fees, build campgrounds
and raise money from the recreation-products industry to help the
agency manage tourists and restore areas damaged by them. He notes
that Congress is considering legislation that would allow the
agency to keep 75 percent of collected recreation fees in certain
pilot areas. Currently, the agency keeps only 15 percent of the
fees. The rest goes to the federal treasury. But the BLM has
opposed the bill because it fears conservative congress people will
use it to justify deeper budget cuts.
environmentalists say more needs to be done. "The agency is so
steeped in mining and grazing," says Southern Utah Wilderness
Alliance staffer Ken Rait, "that there is only a very fledgling
generation of agency staffers who know anything about recreation.
"They ought to be out there issuing permits,
limiting group size, making sure people know how to develop a
relationship with the land without destroying it," he says. "I
don't think the agency ought to promote these areas until it
understands how to manage them."
Whether the BLM
promotes the use of its lands or not, the people, it seems, will
"When people come up to me and ask, "Where
do I go to get away from the crowds," I tell them, don't come
within 20 miles of Moab during the spring or the fall," says Alex
Is there no end to this deluge of
humanity on the Colorado Plateau? Responds VanHemert, "It doesn't
appear that the sale of mountain bikes has peaked."
* Paul Larmer, HCN associate