Outdoor groups fight camping limits

  • Elephant Canyon, near Druid arch, in Canyonlands National Park

    Jack McLellan

Faced with ever-increasing hordes of visitors, Canyonlands National Park recently issued a bold management proposal to protect its still-pristine backcountry. The plan calls for closing some jeep roads, reducing horse numbers, and restricting where and how hikers travel.

Park officials say they weren't surprised at the stack of angry comments from commercial outfitters, but they didn't expect such vehement opposition from the Colorado Outward Bound School and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), both traditional allies of preservation.

In fact, Outward Bound and NOLS were so outraged that they have complained to attorneys, Congress, the Department of the Interior and the park itself, asking for a more lenient management plan.

"We don't deny that the park needs to better manage recreation," says Jimbo Buickerood of Colorado Outward Bound School. "But there should be some space and grace for wilderness education because we build constituents and teach people how to take care of the land. This plan would eliminate us. It's not well thought-out."

For two decades, the wilderness education schools have used Canyonlands as a classroom, at times bringing groups as large as 17 into remote areas and hiking there for weeks. Among the skills imparted to students are "minimum-impact" camping, state-of-the-art waste disposal and other backcountry living techniques.

"Wilderness education is part of the solution, not part of the problem," says Chad Henderson, who directs public policy for NOLS. "Our position is that you can reduce impacts to resources and still allow recreation to continue at a reasonable level."

But park officials say a footprint is a footprint, a poop is a poop, and there are simply too many people in a fragile ecosystem. Since 1984, visitors to the park have increased 400 percent, with more and more venturing off trail.

The park's proposed management plan would reduce the size of backpacking parties from 12 to six in some zones, allow fewer groups in any given area at one time, and close some reaches of the park to camping altogether.

"We do not have sustainable numbers of people right now," says Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist for the park and the National Biological Survey. "Biologically, you cannot convince me there is any way to camp ecologically with a large group."

Belnap says her principal concern is the desert's fragile soil, which fixes nitrogen and holds moisture. "Heavily trampled soil is, quite literally, sterile. The ecosystem will shut down. One footprint and you've wrecked a piece of soil for decades," she says.

"Commercial and large groups ought to be more controlled," says Grand County Councilman Charlie Peterson, who supports the park's proposal. "I've followed after these groups when I'm hiking, and it's an ugly thing to get that many people in one area. The more people, the more impact. That's the bottom line."

But NOLS and Outward Bound officials argue that there is no reliable research proving large groups cause more damage than small groups. They contend their students are good stewards and have every right to use the park. Using tactics and arguments not dissimilar to those of other beleaguered users of public lands, the schools have rallied their forces to fight the Canyonlands plan.

"We've been using Canyonlands since before it was a national park," says Lenore Anderson, Outward Bound's director of environmental resources. "We stand to lose a big chunk of our program. We thought this plan could set a precedent, and we realized we had a battle to fight."

Anderson and NOLS" Henderson took their complaints to higher-ups in the government. They went to the assistant director of the Park Service's regional office in Denver, then to Destry Jarvis, special assistant to National Park Service director Roger Kennedy in Washington, D.C., and then to Rep. Bruce Vento's staff on the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands.

"They've been playing some hardball, trying to go to anybody who could roll me," says park superintendent Walt Dabney. "I'm a little surprised at their reaction, considering their own literature states that small group size is better for the environment."

Dabney has a point. NOLS co-produced with the U.S. Forest Service a Leave No Trace brochure which says: "Small groups are ideal in open areas such as deserts ... Plan to travel and camp with fewer than 8-10 people that can be divided into hiking groups of 2-4 during the day."

Henderson says NOLS is getting better about traveling in small groups. The organization just reduced its standard group size from 20 to 17, he says, and in Canyonlands to 12. Large groups hike in smaller units, he says.

But a limit of six people in one zone would be unworkable for the schools. "Basically, if we're limited to six people including instructors, we can't economically run a trip," says Outward Bound's Anderson.

Last winter, both NOLS and Outward Bound sent alerts to trip alumni asking them to comment on the park's draft backcountry plan. Outward Bound also asked its instructors to write letters, warning, "a precedent may be set for other national parks and even for wilderness areas, one that could ultimately spell the demise of wilderness education as we know it."

But not all instructors agree with the school's position. "Anybody who's worked in the field knows that the larger the group, the more impacts you have," says Outward Bound instructor Howard Passell, who also directs an education program in Canyonlands for troubled youths. "I'm all for cutting back overall numbers, even if it means we get cut out. The park is a limited resource and it's becoming overused."

This summer, the staff at Canyonlands will read the 2,000 comments generated by the draft plan. Superintendent Dabney says he hopes to have a final backcountry management plan ready by next spring. "The final will look different from the draft," he says. "But if we end up tweaking any numbers, it will be because we still feel okay about them. We want to do the right thing for the resource."

Former HCN staff reporter Florence Williams free-lances in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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