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"Arches For The People" Proposes Solution to Arches National Park's Congestion Woes


A Utah man believes he can solve Arches National Park's congestion problem without requiring a reservation system/NPS

A group opposed to seeing a reservation system instituted for Arches National Park is pushing a somewhat novel solution: park your car outside the park. Not only would the plan solve the congestion problem at Arches but, its proponents believe, it will create "the first fully sustainable, noise free, and zero emissions national park by 2030."

That's quite a pitch, one that envisions a massive parking lot on a former uranium tailings dump transformed into "Basecamp Moab," and self-driving electric vehicles that today are no more than a vision. 

"This involves thinking outside of the geographic area of the park and involves public-public-private partnerships," Michael Liss tells me while laying out the vision being carried to the National Park Service by "Arches For The People. "We are now doing all the groundwork to put a 2,000-car parking lot and visitors center across the street from Arches National Park, a half-mile south on (U.S.) 191 from the Arches entrance at the  Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action DOE site. Once we can get everyone parked, we can then offer multiple ways to enter Arches."

While some national parks are grappling with human crowds, at Arches in southeastern Utah the problem is vehicular crowds. With a very limited road system, built around the 18-mile-long main road, traffic can quickly slow to a crawl during the spring, summer, and fall seasons at the park's main attractions, such as Delicate Arch, the Windows Section, and Devils Garden.

To unwind that congestion, Arches staff has been developing a Traffic Congestion Management Plan to address vehicle traffic and parking congestion problems that they say affect visitor access, visitor enjoyment, and resource conditions.

The plan under consideration proposes a reservation system for entrance during high-visitation season and peak-visitation hours. This system would give visitors certainty of entry, reduce or eliminate long entrance lines, spread visitation more evenly across the day, and improve the visitor experience by ensuring available parking space, a park release said. 

Reservations would be required for vehicle entry between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., seven days a week during high-visitation season (currently March through October, but this may shift as visitation patterns change), and could be made online or by phone through

The parking area at the trailhead to Delicate Arch frequently is filled to capacity during the summer season/NPS, Jacob W. Frank

But the plan has raised concerns and drawn opposition, including from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. In a letter (attached below) to Arches Superintendent Kate Cannon sent in December, the governor voiced doubts that "all feasible solutions have been explored," adding that "the plan lacks sufficient detail in critical areas."

"Among these critical areas is a concern that the plan may create unintended negative consequences in the community of Moab and on surrounding public lands," wrote Gov. Herbert. 

While the governor wants the Park Service to consider such things as another park entrance off U.S. 191 north of the current entrance and new trails that could help disperse the crowds, Mr. Liss believes there's a simpler solution, one that could bring additional jobs to the area while reducing vehicles in the park.

"We are still formulating our plan," he told me, "but the key element is the development of a new visitors center and transportation hub with 2,000 parking spaces one half-mile down U.S. 191 from the entrance to Arches National Park at the UMTRA tailings site to give visitors the choice to enter the park in one of three ways: 1) electric shuttle for no additional fee; 2) electric Jeep for a moderate additional fee (self-driving longer term); 3) keep your private car for a premium additional fee.

"This new transportation hub further facilitates our recommendation to prohibit the entry of oversize vehicles so we can optimize the parking on the existing asphalt in the park," said Mr. Liss. "For example, Devils Garden has 162 parking spaces, of which 84 are for oversize vehicles, so the optimized parking will result in at least 240 standard parking spaces, 47 percent more total parking spaces for just the cost of some paint."

The proposed transportation hub would be placed on a decades-old uranium tailings dump at the old Atlas Mill site along the Colorado River. The U.S. Department of Energy has budgeted $1 billion to remove an estimated 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the 480-acre, and is about halfway done with the project.

Because the site already is owned by the federal government, Mr. Liss believes it could be transferred to the Interior Department or possibly even Grand County, Utah, for the transportation hub once the cleanup is complete. When ready for development, the site would be used not only for parking for Arches visitors, but riverside restaurants could be built, new bike trails could connect to existing ones, there'd be room for small retail outlets, and it all would be solar powered by arrays located on site, he envisions.

Michael Liss believes a reservation system to enter the park would drastically impact tourism to Moab and the park/NPS

While the plan's finer details remain to be developed, the Moab man believes the necessary infrastructure on the site could be paid for either via a county construction bond paid off with transient room taxes, or from state funds earmarked for "recreational hotspot communities to reduce congestion, support economic development and support recreational tourism."

As for staffing, a concessionaire could be retained to collect park entrance fees as well as fees paid by vehicle rental operations and "fees collected from retail spaces for Moab area tour operator and adventure outfitters," explained Mr. Liss. "We propose this option to make visitors aware of all the things to do in Moab, to encourage visitor dispersion beyond the park."

Getting people from the transportation hub into the park could be done via shuttle operations or rental of electric Jeep SUVs the car company has on the drawing board, he said.

"Our proposed transportation options will be operated as private concessionaires. We look at the recent national park budget cuts as an opportunity for creative solutions and partnerships, not as a sign for the Park Service to raise the white flag in surrender and build a wall around the park," said Mr. Liss.

He also fears that if the park's reservation plan is implemented, it will be a death knell of sorts for Moab's tourism industry.

"We the People of Moab do not want Arches National Park to go down in history as the first national park to post a 'closed' sign at the entrance and kill the spirit of adventure and spontaneity of the American West, ending a 101-year National Park Service mandate of 'promoting the use of National Parks and providing for the enjoyment of the same,'" he said in a letter to Sue Masica, who oversees the Park Service's Intermountain Region.

"How about going down in history as the first national park with a custom fleet of electric Jeeps accessed with a Car Sharing mobile App?" the letter went on. "Let’s not just solve our popularity issue, let’s make Arches National Park a fun and awesome experience that lets you make a personal connection with the majesty and subtlety of nature even on the busiest day of the year."

While parks such as Acadia, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Rocky Mountain have turned to shuttle bus systems to help manage traffic and congestion, the staff at Arches concluded a few years ago that that was not a reasonable solution for their park.

Although it may seem that the shuttle would be the solution, the length of the park’s road system, a total of 52 miles, and the distance between several key areas in the park, planners concluded that in the best-case scenario it would result in a reduction of 23-28 percent of cars, require one-way travel times up to one hour and 20 minutes, and would require $3 million to operate during a five-month season under a service contract. This cost does not include purchasing and maintaining the 14 buses required to provide the service. Arches also looked at the shuttle operations at Zion, Bryce and Rocky Mountain national parks and noted that although visitors enjoyed this option, the pulses of 40 plus visitors who were dropped off on a trail at one time was causing resource damage and more crowding on the trails.

"We can solve the traffic congestion issues, and make Arches an even better visitor experience," ventured Mr. Liss. "Just the idea that you can get on and off your self-driving car or shuttle will get people out of their cars more to connect with nature, which is the whole point of visiting Arches in the first place.

"The more people connect with the Earth, the more of a chance we have for a civilization that understands that our future depends on living in harmony with the Earth and with each other."

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This sounds like it could be the foundation for an excellent solution to a very serious problem.  It certainly deserves thoughtful consideration. 

I wish the park luckwith this proposal and implementation.

There was a similar proposal for Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors would park in Townsend, the closest town to Cades Cove and be shuttled around the COve.

There was so much opposition for visitors who wanted accessible vehicles and others who wanted the freedom to visit cemeteries at any time that the park quietly dropped it.

Sounds interesting, at least the park and shuttle park - like Zion.  I'm not quite sure how getting out of your car and renting a jeep solves the congestion. 

I'm guessing peak season traffic is far more than 2000 vehicles per day, so the proposed radioactive parking lot seems too small to accomodate the potential demand, even if Rick Perry forgets to eliminate  the DOE.  This proposal to allow private vehicles at a "premium" surcharge nudges the National Parks ever closer to becoming enclaves most welcoming to the wealthiest visitors.  If we really want to separate the rich from the smelly working class, think of the automobile reduction  possible with electric helicopter tours  ;o)    

Thank you Kurt for the article. We will keep you updated on our progress.

Tahoma ... here is some informaton in response to your comment: Arches for the People is proposing the new parking facility 1/2 mile from the Park Entrance on the eastern edge of the old Moab Uranium Mill Site (UMTRA) where nothing was really happening during the uranium boom. This part of the site only needed surface remediation from wind blow particles over the past 50 years. This area is now fully remediated, and would only need certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to be eligible to be transfered to either the Department of the Interior or Grand County, Utah. There is room for at least 10,000 parked cars on this portion of the site. The highest recorded daily vehicle count in Arches National Park was Memorial Day 2017 with about 3,250 vehiclles, yet not all vehicles were in the Park at the same time, as the average visit is 3 hours. Therefore, our plan is to start with 2,000 parking spaces, but Master Plan the site for maximum buildout. The idea to charge a premium additional fee for taking your private vehicle into the Park was suggested as the way to pay for the free shuttle - so you still have a free transportation option that does not require funding from the National Park Service. The Electric Jeep fee would be moderate additional fee to encourage people to choose this option. We recently got some good feedback to offer electriic bikes too, so we have added that to our plan. Electric Helicopters? Cool! Did you see the new passenger drones publicized this week? It looks like a helicopter with about 20 fan blades. I'm in :))

responding to ECBUCK comment "I'm not quite sure how getting out of your car and renting a jeep solves the congestion".

Ecbuck, all of our ideas fit together like a puzzle. Long term, our goal is zero-emissions in the Park, so simply substituting traditional energy vehicles for electric vehicles is a good thing. We propose a parking lot where everyone can easily find a parking space. Then you walk over to the Visitors Center, pay your National Park Fee, then choose your transporation option. (1) Electric Shuttles are Free; (2) Electric Jeeps for moderate fee; or (3) Keep your Private Vehicle for a Premium Fee. Long term, the Electirc Jeeps would be self driving accessed through an App on your iPhone. The cool part about this is that you can now take a one-way hike, like Park Avenue, and have a new vehicle meet you on the other side. This technology opens up so many opportunites to create one-way hikes in the Park, and get people out of their cars in what has been described as a "driving National Park". The best thing that can happen in a National Park is that moment when you make a true connection with nature and begin to understand the we need to figure out how to live in harmony with the Earth. Regarding congestion, the Arches National Park 2012 study found that 25% of visitors will choose the Shuttle option, so that solves part of the challenge. Long term, with self-driving vehicles, visitors will be sharing a fleet, not assigned a specific vehicle, so that solves another piece of the traffic congestion puzzle.

Yosemite has had a shuttle service in the valley for years. I think it works because there is ample parking at the lodging facilities for registered guests, and the large number of stops thins the crowd. The shuttle is free, which I think is mandatory for cooperation. Having little other parking encourages visitors to drive mostly without stopping, to the lodging first, then hop on the shuttle to start seeing stuff.

 Long term, our goal is zero-emissions in the Park,

And that is where your plan fails. Zero emmissions (even if that were a problem) for a few thousands vehicles is meaningless.  The (sometimes) problem at Arches is not emissions, it is congestion.  Putting people back into a rental unit will do nothing for congestion and putting a person back into their own vehicle will do nothing for either congestion or emissions.  Your response makes me question your real goals.  

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