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Tourists Heeding Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ Campaign Overpower Moab (wsj.com)
42 points by mudil 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs--anything--but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.” ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

They banned cars in Zion National Park about ten years ago, and it was a good idea. Arches could definitely do the same, but the problem with the Moab area isn't so much overcrowding of the parks as it is overcrowding of the town, because one small town serves as the launch pad for so many surrounding areas.

In this case, the solution is to try to develop other areas and spread the tourists out to other towns, many of which are desperate for economic development and tourist dollars.

"wild pigs"

I get the point that's trying to be made here, but pigs are just about one of the most destructive animals there are. I'm pretty certain that people in cars are less destructive than people riding wild pigs.

Although a large proportion of people attempting to ride wild pigs are likely to end up dead, so maybe the author did have a good point afterall.

i like the sentiment, but national parks should strive to be as accessible as possible. If you want to be away from society, there is so much more backcountry land where you can get what you need instead of complaining.

I'm a reasonably well travelled Australian (30+ countries, 40ish US states) and think that Southern Utah has one of the best concentrations of natural attractions on the planet. I've visited a number of times and would love to visit at least yearly if I could. I can appreciate that locals detest being swamped, but should everyone have a chance to visit such unique features for themselves?

National parks in the US have incredible brand recognition and cachet and I imagine that this campaign is only part of the story. The big name parks across most of the country are swamped - Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, etc.

I don't know that there's a brilliant solution short of virtual tourism. Raising prices deters anyone but the rich. Adding carparks just reduces the magic of the wild. Increasing awareness of the second-tier features or developing more is an option. Naturally, the crowded experience will push people to visit outside primetime or peak season.

Absolutely do not be deterred though. As the article suggests, avoid peak times for the best experience. Get up early. Stay late. You can sleep in at home. In Moab specifically, loads of people start later than they'd hoped or concentrate in particular places for sunset or return to the town for dinner. If you want a meal in town, make it lunch when the light is most stark and the park is packed. See Delicate Arch at sunrise instead of sunset, as one example. On this year's trip, we started Devils Garden at 6-7pm and came back in the dark with headlamps - had an amazing sunset and only saw a handful of people out there (I wouldn't recommend this to first-time visitors as the primitive trail can be adventurous to follow).

Outside of the big five, there are outstanding places nearby that are popular but not completely overrun. Byway 12 is superb, Buckskin Gulch is fantastic, the slot canyons near Escalante, Coyote Gulch, Goblin Valley, Horseshoe Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Snow Canyon State Park, Kodachrome Basin, etc. Even in the big parks, there are top-shelf experiences that most people don't see - hiking into Canyonlands' The Maze is one of the best things I've ever done, hiking Trans-Zion is full of premium scenery without huge crowds, Fiery Furnace in Arches sans-guide is good fun, at Bryce you can get some great early/late viewing without hordes just by skipping the two main viewpoints.

If you need help with an itinerary, ask away or my email is in my profile.

I live in Utah, and comments like this give me mixed feelings of "I love living here" and "Stop telling everyone else about the quiet places." Not that I really want to keep people away - the only way to fall in love with the outdoors is to spend time there.

But that is also why your comment of virtual tourism really strikes home. One of the reasons I enjoy getting out so much is that I've had health problems that means it isn't always possible to get out. Sharing the landscapes out here with other people who can't get out has always been an interest of mine. With VR technology moving steadily forward, maybe a Streetview-style experience of all these parks would be a timely project.

I think it would need to be more engaging than Streetview to offer anything serious enough to lure people. That said, I've recently finished playing through the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the environments in that are both mesmerising and often based on real world places. Horizon Zero Dawn is similar and features a lot of iconic Utah scenery.

Given decent VR tech and maybe a climate-controlled room that could heat up, gust wind, etc, I can imagine spending time akin to meditation in a virtual camp setting. Come home and want to relax for an hour. Pick the setting, put on the goggles, sit back and take in the view, sounds, etc. Golden hour forever.

Why not have a lottery and give non-transferable tickets to US nationals and have a fixed number of tickets for non-US nationals that are charged for?

[NB I'm not from the US but have been to a few US national parks].

There is a permit system for Half Dome in Yosemite that expanded after we climbed it, and one for Machu Picchu that came in after we hiked the Inca Trail. The Wave has had an infamously brutal one for a while, and I think Buckskin Gulch has a limit for overnighting. So it's already done in a few places. It can be frustrating though - I've tried for The Wave a few times and never been successful. Their limit seems low.

One thing worth doing is a shuttle system. Zion has one for peak months and as well as removing cars from the main canyon, you then have a captive audience which you can reach with messages about best practice in the wilderness though people ignore everything and feed animals anyway. Bryce has a shuttle too. Wouldn't surprise me if Arches was already planning one. That at least helps with the need for more and more parking.

Another option is used in Arches. For Fiery Furnace, if you want to go in without a ranger-led guided tour, you need to pay $6 for a permit, and there are a maximum number issued. In addition, you need to watch an orientation video and then answer some basic questions about it. It's trivial for those who are interested but might limit the place getting flooded at least.

This should be done more. I was absolutely bummed for not being able to the see Da Vinci's "The Last Supper", but in hindsight I understand and feel that is the way to deal with precious places.

At the time, you were required to book ahead, could only stay for 15 minutes, and the number os visitors was limited (so even in November you had to book weeks ahead).

The Tower of London which houses the Crown Jewels [0] has a conveyor belt / moving walkway that you have to stand on to see some of the exhibits. It thus controls access and limits the time you can spend in one of the rooms (I can't remember if it possible to get back to its start to go round again)

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crown_Jewels_of_the_United_Kin...

Sorry to reply a third time, but the rangers of the story talk about a better distribution of visitors across the day. Half Dome permits started on weekends only and then adjusted from there. A permit system for hotspots between 10am and 3pm for example could manage the peak crowds but not prevent anyone seeing the highlights if they adjusted their schedule very slightly.

In some places, this could be done with paid parking at certain times of the day, perhaps besides those with disability permits.

The revenue is too sweet. Governments do not have the self control to pass up. If not initially there will eventually be a pay to play option for the wealthy. There will eventually be a funding squeeze and some administrator will get the bright idea to open up a pay to play system.

Where I live you can't take your own canoe/kayak on the state reservoirs because "invasive species" but you can take your motorboat (way more likely to transmit invasive species than a canoe) if you jump through all the regulatory hoops and then buy some special permits. The state will rent you a canoe for $20 though.

This is false if you're referring to CA. You can't take a water vessel, motorized or not, into reservoirs or lakes unless it's been washed/cleaned and inspected to be free of invasive and highly destructive clagga mussel.

Motorized boats tend to be cleaner than personal craft because most docks and marinas have dedicated facilities or equipment set aside for cleaning larger vessels.

I'm not talking about CA. I'm talking about a state where every body of water over a certain size has to have a public boat ramp and the vast majority of them have no facilities. This is not the yacht club with their complimentary hose for washing off your boat we're talking about. Human powered watercraft do not have inaccessible bilges and cooling systems to harbor invasive species making them much less of a risk of bringing new species with them to a particular body of water.

There's this thing called chlorine that's been around for a few decades, at least, which owners of motorized vessels can use to clean out inaccessible locations like bilge pumps and cooling systems.

It's actually more likely for personal watercraft to carry invasive species because they're less likely to be cleaned (even though they're easier to clean).

Inspections for invasive species have been a major issue for at least a decade, because nobody wants to repeat what happened in the Great Lakes, where invasive species nearly destroyed the lake ecology and its many fisheries.

Raising prices deters anyone but the rich.

I don't buy that argument, mainly because the poor aren't visiting these places in any numbers. They are too busy trying to put the next meal on their table.

Which is why I didn't say "Raising prices deters the poor." I think reading it in good faith covers things and that my intent was clear? Really, it's not going to help encourage anyone that is price sensitive for whatever personal reason and would be quite easily criticised. I think if you are going to respect the environment, you should have every right to witness the best of our planet.

I think if you are going to respect the environment, you should have every right to witness the best of our planet.

Even if visiting that place destroys what you supposedly cherish?

National parks are generally massive. It's possible to visit the most stunning parts with a light touch, and for the broader ecosystem to endure in other areas. I don't think they need to be the same place within a park - e.g., endangered bird atop Delicate Arch, or bears on Clouds Rest.

Obviously we can impact the park from a distance too, but I'd say "destroys" is overly strong language for the respectful traveller I'm discussing. I suspect we damage it almost as much whether we step into the park or not with everything else we do collectively. Certainly a lot of the iconic geological scenery will survive our personal influence.

National parks are generally massive.

I sometimes wonder if this is why America has such trouble with environmental issues. When your landscape is so vast it is hard to imagine human activity having an impact on it.

The trouble with the "respectful traveller" is that they are a minority, as we can see from the article linked at the top of this discussion.

Everywhere has trouble with environmental issues. We're selfish. And respectful travellers are indeed a minority.

I actually think that there is a subset of Americans, more than many other countries, that across all age brackets have a great appreciation for the outdoors. In Australia, we have families going camping and grey nomads, but we don't have anything like quantities of college friends camping together that the US has. Makes me quite jealous. Most of our parks have nowhere near the prestige or modern cultural history (s'mores, log cabins, the romantic stone inns in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc). We have damper and I don't know what else.

I've seen comments in other discussions about uncouth Chinese tourists en masse, and Chinese explaining that these are newly middle-class Chinese now with money to head abroad, but perhaps not the awareness to always do it politely. But I don't think it's unique to China. Almost anyone worldwide would've seen domestic groups playing music on their phones or portable speakers while hiking, etc. Others feeding chewing gum to squirrels. I don't know how you get through to these people, because they obviously don't care about signs and park brochures.

(Again reading the comment with good faith/will) presumably "if you are going to respect the environment" covers that aspect?

Nevertheless, there is an admission price that will restore visitor traffic to something more reasonable.

You should realize wealth is a continuum. Destitute, Poor, Lower Class, Lower Middle Class ...

Yes, I am aware of that.

I grew up in Utah and was able to visit Moab many times over the years. It is a great little town and the sites and things you can reach from it are awesome. One of my favorite hikes at Arches NP is the Fiery Furnace, which is permit-controlled. I wonder if requiring permits for more of the sites would help address these issues?

Of course, I'm also a big supporter of efforts to increase the size of national parks and monuments in the state as well (despite this administration's recent efforts). Preserving and regulating more wilderness would go a long way to hopefully mitigating this overcrowding issue.

I think that permits should only be used sparingly at National Parks. For a lot of people, their only exposure to the outdoors comes from "that one family out west trip". If we want people to pressure politicians to protect public lands, the more people that feel a connection to those public lands the better.

I view National Parks as a sacrificial public land. Let them be overly crowded in order to keep all the amazing BLM, state parks, national forests/prairies, etc... special.

Fiery furnace is great! I used to drive to Moab every year for Spring Break to do outdoor sports with some friends from University, and it's a total paradise for people who want to do anything outdoors.

It's selfish and elitist to say, but I almost feel like it's better if places like Moab aren't publicized at all, and people just find out about it through word-of-mouth like I did. It takes some education to properly "leave no trace" in the back country, and I feel like that sort of works itself out when people discover the parks largely by being invited by someone who's already in the fold.

If the parks are going to be a more popular destination for the general public, then I think it is probably better to have a permit system both to regulate absolute numbers, and to require people to pass some kind of test or course about how to be a good citizen inside the park.

"It takes some education to properly "leave no trace" in the back country"

This kinda baffles me because it really should take a bare minimum of consideration. The basic rules are not overly difficult, right? Don't trample stuff. Dig a hole if shitting in the backcountry. Don't feed animals. Minimise your impact. Don't walk around playing music at everyone.

Parks have signs everywhere. Clear brochures with obvious info. What makes it so hard for people to understand and make that tiny amount of effort?

> The tourism onslaught has caused problems all around. On adjoining state desert land, Michael Grindstaff recently drove an all-wheel-drive vehicle past juniper and pinyon trees that were littered with scraps of toilet paper, windblown remnants of unpermitted campers having done their business.

Hey, a use for a national DNA database.


Interestingly enough, there's a parallel to the San Francisco housing shortage.

There are actually many, many more amazing places to see in Southern Utah and the rest of the Southwest. Only a small number of these places are in national parks. Like SF housing, an increase in supply would ease overcrowding, but instead of restrictions on new building because of NIMBYs and misguided governmental action restricting the supply, it's actually ideological myopia that's at the root of it.

Utah's largely conservative Republican congressional delegation and state government pushed to roll back two new national monuments, and vehemently oppose the development of federal lands for tourism and recreation uses, while on the other hand are rabid about subsidizing extractive industries that aren't nearly as important to the local economy.

In both cases, the problem is made worse by ideology. San Francisco housing is expensive partially because local lawmakers are blind to free market solutions, and Utah tourism is harmed because local lawmakers are blind to the idea that public lands being preserved in parks may be the best way to bring economic development to the state.

A preview of the Area 51 flash mob, perhaps.

Lived in Utah for a year and saw most everything I wanted to see in that time. I will go back one day but in the off-season and will alternate between vandwelling in a van conversion and pay a premium for nice accommodations when I need it.

A year ago my friend and I drove from SLC to the Tetons to Yellowstone to Glacier, then over to the PNW and down the coast to the Bay Area. This was honestly two of the best months in my life, I grew so much as a human being and expanded my horizons quite a bit just realizing how little I needed to be happy.

There's little evidence that this is due to a campaign. RMNP in Colorado had a similar jump in number of visits, as well as Yellowstone and the Grand.

The problem is simply too many people, too little wilderness. Unless we stop growing and put some wild lands off limits (as wilderness), in a few short years there will be nothing left.

> The problem is simply too many people, too little wilderness. Unless we stop growing and put some wild lands off limits (as wilderness), in a few short years there will be nothing left.

National Parks are overcrowded, but they are a tiny, tiny part of all the public lands. Your complaint is that there are too few places with nice paved roads and visitor centers and such for people to go, not that there is too little wilderness.

"in a few short years there will be nothing left" is so comically wrong it's ridiculous. You're looking at literally the top 5-10 most popular outdoor areas to go, of course they're crowded.

Even within national parks, as soon as you go more than 1-2 miles away from a road, you'll see very, very few people.

yes! they should fix up infrastructure and steer people to lesser visited sites

This is essentially an argument for more national parks.

I've lived someplace embroiled in controversy over pursuing national park status. Most the residents are vehemently against it because it would trash the place and overwhelm it with tourist traffic and all the problems that brings. The supporters consist a small contingent of profiteering area land owners that don't even spend any significant time living there. They couldn't care less about what impact becoming a national park would have on the environment or the area residents' quality of life. They just saw dollars.

National parks are a double-edged sword. They bring often much-needed tourism dollars to typicaly economically distressed remote regions. But they do not improve the environment. They stimulate travel (often by air), pollute the park area, and damage the natural habitats.

If the goal is to preserve and protect, the last thing you do is classify a place as a national park and make it easily accessed and comfortable with infrastructure. You leave the place lacking roads, running water, campgrounds, and toilets, and certainly don't advertise it as a nationally-recognized place of beauty.

National parks are more about stimulating the economy than preserving nature, at least as implemented today.

Commodification of nature. Get in the car, drive for a while, do something for 2 to 4 hours, get back in the car and drive back. In this case the activity consists of walking, but the summit/lookout/whatever can't be more than 6-7km away from the road. It has nothing to do with preservation.

Let me share a case I am familiar with. One of my favorite short walks in my grandparents' town used to be one where you had to walk ~2km through fields, then a steep ascend of ~4km on a difficult rocky trail, then another ~2km through a nice pine forest to finally reach a beautiful lookout.

Then someone somewhere decided that it was a good idea to build a paved road so people didn't have to walk the first 6km.

To the benefit of who? Certainly not the environment: the construction of the road, polluting cars, garbage, soil erosion at the sides of the road from cars parking there...

It didn't provide any benefit for the people that walked there. Now you can hear cars going up and down while you walk. Some places are littered with waste material from the road's construction, and at some points you actually have to cross the road.

The people that drive up there also admit that while the place is ideal to go with kids, it is so crowded that it makes the experience miserable.

Finally, it didn't create a continuous economic revenue for anyone, since the lands are public and the town doesn't charge any fee. There are only a handful of shops in town and they have not seen an increase in consumption.

So what was the point of all it? Did we wreck a beautiful mountain and forest so that a construction company could pocket a few million euros?

This might not be the ultimate answer because I think a world with a variety of experiences is reasonable, but making locations accessible may mean a lot to those in a wheelchair or unable to walk 6km. Let's say you work yourself to the bone, retire and then every natural wonder of the world has a lengthy walk to see it and you have bad knees - that's brutal. Or you have a teenage daughter unable to walk and you'd love to show her the view you grew up enjoying yourself. In your example, did the outlook itself change dramatically?

A lot of national parks have this mix already. You can drive a scenic route. you can do a short interpretive walk or an accessible trail, or you can do a half- or full-day hike, or you can get out away from the main trails hiking 100 miles across the park. You can stay in a nearby town, or in the in-park campground, or hike 5 miles to a backcountry spot with no one around.

But I think accessibility would be one 'point of it all.'

"bad roads act as filters... bad roads bring good people, good roads bring bad people".

-- Joseph Wood Krutch


You're ignoring the cultural impact. People growing to love national parks may influence them to vote for pro-environment politicians and initiatives.

Do you have evidence that this has ever been the case? My personal experience, having grown up in Utah and still having family there, it always seemed to me that the best way to "protect" the environment or a wilderness area is to simply not build a road to it.

Edit: spelling/grammer/I'm on mobile now.

Then the places that you've made accessible will be also swamped. It's a textbook case of induced demand.

The fundamental principal of supply and demand is that shifting the supply curve down or to the right increases demand equilibrium.

If supply has a fixed upper limit and price is also fixed at a reasonable level, then demand will always peg to the right of the curve. The economic solution in this case is to increase supply (or increase cost)

This is only considered a problem when there is a real (or perceived) negative externality on increasing the supply. I fail to see the negative externality of having more national parks which massive numbers of people are very excited to tour.

As an outsider, I think the US already has a brilliant system of designating land as tiers of national park, monument, national forest, BLM land, state park, etc. Especially in the west, there are huge amounts of land preserved for those interested in using it - hiking, camping, hunting, recreational vehicles (bikes, ATVs, etc). And all ages - families, college kids, travelling couples, grey nomads, etc. Loads of these places are not at all crowded.

The problem is purely that people concentrate in very small areas of that broader wilderness. Photo-driven tourism exacerbates this. People are inspired to travel by a photo they've seen, so spectacular things get buried in people.

If you want a wilder experience, it exists in almost every park, either outside of peak season, peak hour, or sometimes just a short distance off the main thoroughfares. The majority of people don't go beyond the easiest viewpoints.

I'm from the UK and about 10 years ago, took a side trip to one of the redwood forests outside SF. It was packed near the carpark, but wonderfully quiet about 20 minutes walk away.

That's the joke. Walk half a mile from the parking lot and it's only you bears and Germans.

If you go virtually anywhere except the national parks in Utah you have the place to yourself. I’ve been in slot canyons with nobody but my brother and I around.

Or just go in winter. It’s not hot, prices plummet, you don’t have to be up at stupid-o’clock for sunrise and there’s nobody around.

We got to Snow Canyon SP this summer and it was beautiful, and there were loads of camp sites spare. That was their off-peak time. Just had to get up a bit earlier to hike areas while they were still shaded, and you got a great experience without anyone around. Feels like no matter how many places you see in Utah, there are still more epic spots for the next trip.

I think the ranger in The Maze mentioned that July had seriously low visitorship. Something like 7 people/day hiking in because of the heat and exposure?

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