As someone who makes a living from backcountry tours through Canyonlands National Park, Dave Bodner understands the "balancing act" that goes into managing unique recreational areas.
On one hand, park administrators must protect the park from environmental degradation. On the other, they must accommodate thousands of visitors eager to experience the park's natural wonders."It's a fairly difficult balancing act to perform because we're getting more and more and more visitations up here," said Bodner, manager of North American River/Canyonlands Tours in Moab. "If we don't manage the impacts, we'll end up destroying the things we love."
And, with one exception, Canyonlands' Backcountry Management Plan is a reasonable and legal attempt to do just that, according to U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball.
The judge rejected a legal challenge to the plan by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, leaving the park's management policies largely intact and more than 190 miles of backcountry roads and trails open to four-wheel drive vehicles.
However, Kimball directed the park to bar vehicles from a 10-mile segment of the Salt Creek Jeep Trail, which has provided the only vehicular access to the Angel Arch trailhead.
"We were surprised and pleased by the judge's ruling," said Canyonlands spokesman Paul Henderson. "Other than that one minor surgical removal from the plan (the Salt Creek segment), the judge has dismissed all of SUWA's allegations."
The decision was important because the Backcountry Management Plan governs every facet of park use, from camping and back-packing to river-running and four-wheeling, Henderson said.
"It is the key to protecting our backcountry resources and the visitor experience," he said. "The court left the Backcountry Management Plan intact and held that no procedures or regulations were violated in the preparation of the plan."
While acknowledging it had lost the arguments over the legality of the management policy and other issues, SUWA said in a press release that Kimball's decision regarding the Salt Creek Jeep Trail was itself a major victory.
"This is a banner decision for national park protection," said SUWA attorney Heidi McIntosh. "From now on, the Park Service will have to treat the parks as the national treasures they truly are. And Canyonlands will now have to protect this beautiful riparian area instead of treating it like a jeep turnpike."
SUWA filed the lawsuit in 1995, arguing the policy permitting off-road vehicles on about 200 miles of unpaved roads and trails in Canyonlands violated Park Service regulations and environmental law. The Park Service argued those laws authorize a balancing between competing mandates of resource conservation and visitor enjoyment.
"Accordingly, the question is whether the vehicle use authorized in the Backcountry Management Plan represents a reasonable accommodation of competing interests," Kimball wrote. "This court is satisfied that it does."
However, the judge said allowing vehicles on the 10-mile section of the Salt Creek Canyon trail from Peekaboo Spring to the Angel Arch trailhead violated a prohibition against activities that permanently impair park resources. The trail runs in and out of Salt Creek, which is the only year-round, freshwater creek in the park other than the Colorado and Green Rivers.
"The presence of the jeep trails (in Salt Creek Canyon) eliminates areas that would otherwise support rare riparian (river-related) vegetation and provide a rare habitat for a diverse array of small mammals and birds," Kimball said.
"Driving vehicles through the water kills aquatic species by increasing turbidity, churning pool bottoms, breaking down banks, and decreasing fish habitat."
While ruling a portion of the trail off-limits to vehicles, Kimball expressed "much sympathy for the elderly, disabled and others whose physical condition will not permit them to hike to Angel Arch."
"Unfortunately, that's true," Henderson said. "What was up until now a one-mile hike to Angel Arch will be 20 miles round-trip. So, accessibility will be a huge challenge for most people. To other folks, it's great because it takes the four-wheel-drive vehicles off the trail."