If we are going to have this push for tourism and advertise these parks, let's do it in a way we can accommodate it and not push Utah residents out of line —Robert Grow, Envision Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State Parks added nearly 100 stalls for boats and vehicles at Utah Lake this summer, another entrance lane and made other improvements at Jordanelle Reservoir to boost visitor capacity.
National Park Service officials are grappling with signficant spikes in visitation at Arches and other national parks in Utah, and last week, the agency announced that day-use permits will be required for White Rim and Elephant Hills roads at Canyonlands beginning Sept. 1 to better manage the visitor experience.
With Utah anticipated to nearly double its population by 2050, crowding will only continue to get worse in the mountains, on biking trails and at the state's reservoirs in the years to come — and space is finite for these outdoor playgrounds.
"We are busy all the time," said Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. "Having more people in the parks is a good thing, but at some point the visitor experience starts to diminish. We know we are at a tipping point where people will stop coming because it is not enjoyable."
New survey results from Envision Utah show that a majority of Utah residents — 83 percent — support putting in more recreational facilities west of the Wasatch Front if it would help with crowding problems in the Wasatch mountains.
Nearly 53,000 people weighed in on the topic of recreation in what Envision Utah officials describe as the nation's most successful and participatory outreach called "Your Utah Your Future," in which residents were asked to pick "scenarios" culled from various management approaches on key topics such as education, public lands and transportation.
Utah's outdoors and recreational allure rank among the top values residents say make the state a great place to live, competing strongly with a good economy and a safe and healthy place to raise a family, according to Envision Utah.
Crowding of those beloved spaces, however, is beginning to cause concern among Utah's outdoors lovers, with a little more than a third of respondents indicating they don't want dollars spent to attract tourists to recreational spots.
"The most interesting new thing is that we are starting to get concerned about crowding, and if that crowding is being caused by someone from out of state, Utah residents like it even less," said Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah.
Grow says that finding leaves state tourism boosters in a strange place for having such an effective campaign like the Mighty Five — promoting Utah's five national parks — which are now straining under unprecedented visits and trying to find ways to handle traffic congestion.
"If we are going to have this push for tourism and advertise these parks, let's do it in a way we can accommodate it and not push Utah residents out of line," he said.
Promoting the state
The challenges are being highlighted even as Salt Lake City prepares for an estimated 30,000 manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to converge on downtown as part of the annual Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, which runs Aug. 5-8 and generates nearly $28 million in direct spending for the city and state.
Held in Utah since 1996, the event is another way to showcase Utah's outdoors, with this year's open air demo playing out at Pineview Reservoir's Cemetery Point, where vendors will get a chance to show off the latest in paddle boards, kayaks and even throwing hatchets.
While Utah's slick rock mountain biking trails near Moab and alpine skiing in Park City are time-honored favorites of locals, increasingly the recreation industry is proving a draw to new people moving in, companies choosing to locate in the state and tourists who plan their vacations here, said Brad Petersen, the state director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation.
"If you look at our recreation infrastructure very much like you look at a product in a business, when it reaches maturity," at some point capacity is compromised, Petersen said. "Our outdoor places are finite resources, and they have to be managed as such."
To crunch the numbers on what financial investments might be necessary to accommodate the anticipated population growth, Envision Utah did an audit of Utah's current recreational 'assets,' that include the miles of paved and unpaved trails and number of campsites, arriving at scenarios in which costs could escalate as high as $5 billion to keep pace.
Hayes said it is unrealistic to believe the problem can be solved by simply throwing dollars at it, or by doubling existing capacity.
"There's no way as our population doubles we are going to double our state parks from 43 to 86 or go out and create 22 new reservoirs," he said. "There's no way we are going to be able to go do that. But we do have opportunities with say, like a Strawberry Reservoir, and with our federal partners, to be smart about what we do."
Both Hayes and Petersen concede the state needs some long-term planning on its recreation goals.
"When we started talking about this a few years ago, it hit me then that we are way behind the curve and we all need to get our heads together and figure out where we are going to be and what we are going to look like, recreationally," Hayes said. "I don't think any of us have looked ahead to the next 35 years and asked how we are going to accommodate the growth."
The state parks division is in the midst of a strategic planning process that outlines objectives and goals, but it does not go beyond five or 10 years, Hayes said.
Petersen said a state recreation plan was completed in the mid-1960s, envisioning that tourism could possibly be Utah's No. 1 economic industry. Even with some of the planning it incorporated at the time, Petersen said growth projections have far surpassed what the plan projected.
"For the first time, I believe we are looking around and seeing the numbers of people and asking at what point does it become saturated," Petersen said. "I think we are the point where we can no longer fly by the seat of our pants and try to fix what has been done wrong."
The Envision Utah poll did reveal that 67 percent of respondents would be in favor of a small tax increase if the money went to an integrated system of trails and parks in their community — something Petersen said could serve as a relief valve as the Wasatch Front becomes more filled up with people.
Already, Utah is considered the sixth most "urban" state in the country, with 91 percent of the state's population living on 1.5 percent of Utah's land mass, Petersen noted.
"That is only going to continue to escalate," he said. "So do municipal parks become part of our planning as well? It's a question we have to consider."
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