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Within And Beyond National Park Boundaries, A Chat With Superintendent Kate Cannon


The view beyond Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park / Rebecca Latson

During my New Year’s trip to Utah for some Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park photography, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument).  Superintendent Cannon was kind enough to take time out of her own vacation to meet me for breakfast at a popular Moab café and bakery.  What initially began as a discussion about our favorite spots within Canyonlands and Arches turned into a much more thoughtful conversation about inter-agency collaboration, the effort to preserve resources while continuing to encourage visitation, and the effect of a national park visit on a person’s mindset.

I initiated our meeting by asking what her favorite spots were in Canyonlands and Arches national parks. While these might be easy questions for me to answer, it took a little more mulling on Superintendent Cannon’s part, since she has explored both national parks far more extensively than yours truly.  After careful thought, Superintendent Cannon said she enjoyed hiking Upper Salt Creek in Canyonlands, with its canyon vistas, incredible geology, and Indian ruins where “you can see their fingerprints on the walls.”

Getting Superintendent Cannon to name a favorite spot in Arches took a little more effort, and it wasn’t until she listened to me wax poetic about my favorite spot of the La Sal Mountains view area and the gorgeous sunrise shots I've captured, that she admitted to also enjoying that location and often brought visitors there.  One can see a slice of everything in that single location, from massive red sandstone formations nearby, to Balanced Rock and the Windows to the northeast, to the eastern view of the La Sal Mountains across the vast scrub brush landscape. 

Sunrise at the La Sal Mountains view area, Arches National Park / Rebecca Latson

“You know what you are seeing, don’t you?” Superintendent Cannon asked me.  “You are looking into BLM land.”

She told me if I was to raise a tall wall around Arches’ borders, enclosing the park so that all I saw was what the park’s boundaries encompassed, my line of sight would be shortened.  When I visit the La Sal Mountains view area, I am standing in the national park, but my camera looks beyond the borders of the park toward those mountains. 

Mesa Arch at midday, Canyonlands National Park / Rebecca Latson

It’s the same thing with Canyonlands. I may be standing at Mesa Arch, viewing the John Ford-esque scenery framed by that small sandstone formation, but what I actually observe beyond that arch is U.S. Bureau of Land Management acreage.  Superintendent Cannon explained that this is the very reason it is so important to maintain cordial and open lines of communication and cooperation between the National Park Service and the BLM, particularly when it comes to land use and the sale of lease parcels for oil and gas and mining operations.

A working well site near the entrance to the Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park / Rebecca Latson

A few miles outside the entrance to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, if you look toward the left side of the road, you’ll notice a working well site formerly owned by Fidelity Exploration and Production.  The area around there is nicknamed by some locals “Oil Land in The Sky,” and during active drilling, when the tall rig was operating and there was heavy truck traffic and pipeline construction, it must have been a surprise and an eyesore to visitors on their way into this Canyonlands district. 

Nowadays, while some might still find the view of the remaining “horse head”- or “grasshopper”- shaped pump and assorted collection tanks to be disconcerting so close to a national park boundary, Superintendent Cannon provided some perspective. The operator was willing to work at keeping its setup as low-key as possible.  Whether we like it or not, if continued oil and gas or other minerals mining occurs outside of national park and national monument boundaries, cooperation between the NPS, BLM and whatever operation wishing to extract the minerals will be essential in mitigating adverse environmental effects to human and wildlife populations. 

Regarding the BLM’s choice of leases for oil and gas auctions, the NPS may make suggestions on leases to pull from a prospective sale, but the BLM is not required to obtain NPS consent. However, the BLM must consult with the NPS regarding operations approval or issuance of permits.  While I don’t recall Superintendent Cannon mentioning this, I discovered after the interview that the BLM has not always consulted with the NPS.

Note:  According to a Denver Post news report published in 2015 and updated April 19, 2016, Denver-based Fidelity Exploration and Production sold its assets and exited the business. The site near the entrance to both Dead Horse Point State Park and Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park is currently owned by Kirkwood Resources and NERD Energy doing business “under the banner of Wesco Operating Co.”

Continuing our conversation about cooperation, I expressed my concern that, with today’s political climate, people who have never visited a national park or national monument may not really care about the issues currently threatening these lands’ preservation. Why should they, if this has nothing to do with their daily struggle to pay the bills or when it might infringe upon the size of their takehome pay?  These people might only see textbook or magazine photos of these national treasures but never personally view mountain, mesa or canyon, or watch a fox, bear, or moose forage for food or interact with their young. 

We agreed on the significance of a physical visit to these places to personally experience the scenery, wildlife, and rejuvenating effects of a national park or monument. We agreed these visits foster respect and appreciation for these environments.

To that end, Superintendent Cannon outlined to me the Canyon Country Outdoor Education program held in local school districts for grades one through six. This cooperative effort involves a national park ranger visiting the classroom to talk about the natural and cultural resources of nearby national parks and monuments. In addition to classroom visits, this program includes field trips and park ranger follow-ups to the classrooms. Students receive a free pass for a return visit with their families.  Based upon an anecdote told me by Superintendent Cannon, this program has changed how students and their families view these national parks and monuments, particularly since many of the people around here (Moab area) are already a conservative lot, with mixed views of the nearby national parks.

While national parks, monuments and historical sites need to be visited to be appreciated, we’ve all read articles regarding the heavy toll visitation places on a park’s natural resources, people and infrastructure. I questioned Superintendent Cannon about the proposed Arches National Park reservation system, which would require reservations during the high season (currently March – October) between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the effort to ensure parking space availability and thus allow tourists a more enjoyable experience within the park.  I asked if such a setup might meet a roadblock regarding people like me, who tend to enter a national park during pre-dawn hours for those night and sunrise photo ops.  Did she think too many others might follow suit and take up parking space without making a reservation? 

Not at all, was Superintendent Cannon’s response as she proceeded to provide me with a little history regarding the reservation system proposal. 

“Have you ever seen the amount of traffic coming through Moab and into the park during the peak season?,” she asked.

Since I generally travel to national parks during their off seasons, I admitted I had not.  Superintendent Cannon said the gridlock could be unbelievable and the traffic experience each summer was not something the town inhabitants had moved there for.

Because leaving things in situ would continue placing heavy stress upon all of Arches’ resources, alternatives were reviewed, including a shuttle system much like that utilized in Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. This suggestion for Arches was ultimately discarded. When asked why, Superintendent Cannon said the costs to maintain a shuttle system for a national park with approximately 18 miles of main park road (as opposed to Zion’s 7-mile Scenic Drive) would consume and take over their budget. These high-cost maintenance issues were reinforced by information gathered by park officials regarding operation of the Grand Canyon shuttle system.  As such, the question boiled down to leaving things as they were or introducing a reservation system for Arches National Park.

Now, back to my original question of early-morning or late-night entries into Arches. How did Superintendent Cannon know those numbers were negligible and would not affect their reservation system?  “We have data,” she answered.

National parks have kept count of visitors entering and leaving their boundaries during operating hours, but never with any real times associated with each wheeled or on-foot entry and not before or after regular hours. Today’s technical advancements ensure the cables beneath Arches’ entrance booths not only keep count of entries and exits, but also the times of those entries and exits.  From that data, park officials determined the number of before- and after-hour visits would have a small effect on the proposed reservation system. 

“So," I asked, "all those days I’ve entered the park between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. were counted and the times noted?” 

“We know when you’ve come and gone,” Superintendent Cannon grinned. 

(By the way, I have an annual pass, so I don’t feel guilty about arriving during off hours.  I made certain to let the Superintendent know that, too. Contributors to National Parks Traveler follow park rules.)

My last question posed to Superintendent Cannon was for her single favorite spot within the entire National Park System. She smiled and remained silent a bit, then leaned back, responding in her soft voice, “I can’t name a favorite because each unit is special in its own way.” 

Who would disagree with that answer?

Star shine and light trails at the La Sal Mountains view area, Arches National Park / Rebecca Latson

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Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful write-up, Rebecca.  Although I've never had an opportunity to meet Supt Cannon in person, I've heard nothing but very good things about her from many people who have and who actually work with her now.  In my mind, she is what NPS people all should be . . . 

As somebody who was in her NPS Law Enforcement Academy class at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) more than 30 years ago, I remember her as being highly intelligent and engaged.  Glad to hear she's doing well.

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