The National Park Service is developing a management plan for Rainbow Bridge National Monument that includes a fee and will allow for a significant increase in visitors.
The plan envisions up to 390 people visiting the arch at a time, up from the current maximum of between 250 and 300.In a year, that could greatly increase the number of people traveling to the once remote arch in southeastern Utah, now easily accessible by man-made Lake Powell, said Park Service environmental specialist Jim Holland.
Relocating docking facilities, establishing a mass viewing area, improving the trail to the arch and increasing Park Service personnel should accommodate larger crowds while better protecting the monument, Holland said in a briefing for state officials.
The plan also contemplates a fee, possibly $2 per boat, to enter the monument, he added.
Parts of the proposal were criticized by Terri Martin of the watchdog National Parks and Conservation Association, who said the plan would aggravate an existing overcrowding problem.
"It's the wrong setting for a carnival-type atmosphere," she said.
"Rainbow Bridge should be managed to allow visitors to come to see it but to assure their trip is dominated by a respect for the majesty of the bridge, the natural quiet of the area, its pristine setting and mystical qualities, and its importance for Navajos," Martin said.
"Instead of giving people an opportunity to experience Rainbow Bridge, (the Park Service) is creating a procession to file past a sideshow and gawk at it," she said.
The Park Service received several hundred comments while preparing the plan, said Larry May, assistant superintendent of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which administers the monument.
They included comments from the Navajo Tribe, which holds the bridge sacred, May said. Additionally, the Park Service decision will impact tribal plans for a marina on Lake Powell.
Holland said the Park Service has tried to find out how the plan would affect the Navajos' religious ceremonies, but the tribe has been reluctant to divulge much information about their rituals.
He said, however, the Park Service likely will abandon plans to require the tribe to obtain permits to conduct rites at the monument. Tribal officials questioned why they need permission to conduct rituals performed for centuries before the bridge was declared a national monument.
Holland said the plan is designed to help visitors make a transition from the hectic "racing point-to-point" recreational atmosphere at Lake Powell to the more serene and mystical atmosphere of the red-rock canyon where Rainbow Bridge is located.
It calls for a station at Forbidden Bay, just off Lake Powell and out of sight from the arch, where boats would check in and pay a fee. The boats would have a 15-minute cruise at wakeless speeds through the narrow canyons to a floating dock near bridge's base.
The slow speeds would also reduce noise and the potential for accidents in the serpentine canyon.