The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but when it comes to managing national parks in Utah's rugged canyon country, a straight line can be a pain in the delicate arch.
That is why national parks advocates are ecstatic over a proposal by Utah's congressional delegation to expand Arches National Park by 3,140 acres. And it has nothing to do with the number of acres being added."When parks were created, the decisions as to where boundaries were located were political decisions, and usually that meant the boundaries became straight lines," said Mark Peterson, Rocky Mountain regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association.
In the case of Arches, a straight boundary line established in 1929 cut through Lost Spring Canyon, leaving some of the canyon within the park and an additional section with similar arches and scenic qualities unprotected. It made no sense that one portion would be a national park and the other not.
On May 22, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, introduced the Senate version of a bill by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, that has already passed the House. The bill tosses out the straight-line boundary and restores a boundary that conforms with the natural features of the landscape, specifically the rim of Lost Spring Canyon.
Ten free-standing arches, 300-foot-deep canyon gorges and a number of side canyons would be added to the park. The addition would allow the National Park Service to manage the entire canyon for its watershed and ecology values, rather than a portion of it.
The land to be added to the park is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which has not had much presence there because of its isolation. The area is included within the BLM's wilderness study area, as well as within a proposal by the Utah Wilderness Coalition.
If the bill passes - and Bennett has assured National Parks and Conservation Association supporters it will - it could be a harbinger of compromises to come. Other Utah parks are plagued with management problems caused by straight-line boundaries, and officials are looking at the Arches example as but a tiny step toward replacing political boundaries with natural ones.
For example, one of the more ambitious proposals bantered about in recent years is to extend the boundaries of Canyonlands from canyon rim to canyon rim, rather than the current straight-line boundaries that are virtually unmanageable.
"Canyonlands was the grand political compromise in 1964," Peterson said, "but we can see now there are boundaries that just don't make any sense."
For example, not everything you see in the canyon bottoms from the various overlooks at Island in the Sky is part of Canyonlands National Park. Because of straight boundaries, some of it is BLM land, even though BLM managers have minimal access to the land.
It could also create a situation in which BLM lands within the Canyonlands viewspread could be "vulnerable to all kinds of uses incompatible with the scenic views people now enjoy," Peterson said.
That is why the most important aspect in the Arches legislation is not the acreage, Peterson said, but the recognition that parks should be enclosed by natural, common-sense boundaries.
"It is important that politicians and environmentalists are coming together in recognition that national parks need to be completed," he said. "But it is also important we not get caught up in acreages, but instead look at the landscape and look at the development needs and come to agreement on what makes common sense."