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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Utah is working on a recreation plan to ease crowding, climate and other pressures

A crowd of tourists taking pictures at the Bryce Point overlook at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Aug. 1, 2019.
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A crowd of tourists taking pictures at the Bryce Point overlook at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Aug. 1, 2019.

It’s a double-edged sword.

Utah takes pride in its spectacular landscapes for outdoor recreation. But as word has gotten out, crowded hiking trails and packed parking lots are now common parts of the scenery.

The area surrounding Moab in southeast Utah is a prime example.

Canyonlands National Park saw a nearly 25% jump in its visitor numbers from 2019 to 2021, the largest increase of any Utah national park. More than 1 million people went to Dead Horse Point last year, making it the second most popular state park in Utah. And as Arches National Park’s visitor numbers rose to record levels in recent years, it implemented a timed entry reservation system to alleviate tourist gridlock.

Wayne Freimund has seen these dynamics first-hand in Moab, where he’s based as a recreation resource management professor with Utah State University.

“That popularity brings a lot of opportunity for us. It brings a lot of people here, a lot of potential for economic development,” Freimund said. “But we've had rapid escalations of growth … so there's a lot of challenges with that.”

Those challenges are part of why the Utah Outdoor Adventure Commission is creating the state’s first strategic plan examining how Utah can put its recreation and conservation resources to the best possible use.

Before the plan comes out later this year, the commission planned a seven-stop listening tour for May and June to get local input about the most pressing concerns and most promising ideas related to outdoor recreation.

Here are the tour dates and locations:

  • May 12: Richfield, Snow College’s Richfield Campus
  • May 16: Kaysville, Davis Technical College
  • May 17: Alpine, Alpine City Building
  • May 31: Brigham City, Box Elder County Offices 
  • June 6: Panguitch, Garfield County Courthouse 
  • June 14: Monticello, Canyon Country Discovery Center 
  • June 15: Vernal, Utah State University’s Vernal Campus 

Every state, including Utah, regularly develops strategic plans to get federal recreation dollars like the funding that comes from the National Park Service. Those are called statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plans.

Carly Lansche, recreation planning coordinator for the Utah Department of Outdoor Recreation, said this new plan will focus on steering Utah’s state funding to the places that need it most.

And Utah’s remote, wild parks aren’t the only places that have had an influx of visitors in recent years. In the wake of the pandemic, Lansche said, recreation areas statewide, including city parks and county trailheads, have had to accommodate more people. She doesn’t expect that trend to taper off any time soon.

“As Utah continues to grow, our population grows and people move here for the quality of life and the recreation opportunities that we have,” Lansche said, “it's really imperative that we can help coordinate some strategic investment into maintaining and sustaining what we're so lucky to have here in Utah.”

Freimund, who’s assisting the commission with some of the research that will inform this plan, said getting this right is particularly vital in Utah, where more than 70% of the state is public land — a high number even among Western states.

Even as the number of visitors spiked, he said, the local budgets for those recreation areas haven’t kept pace.

Some communities struggle to keep roads maintained because of the traffic to recreation sites. Others want to build new trails and connect existing ones to create larger trail systems but don’t know how to get the money to do it.

And as housing prices skyrocket in Moab, it can be hard for people who want to work at local recreation agencies to live there, which compounds staffing shortages.

“You end up trying to figure out how to do more with less,” Freimund said. “It's an ongoing struggle that's not totally unique to Moab. … That's something that we see in small communities all over the West.”

One clear example of this, he said, is search and rescue operations. Rural communities have to shoulder the high cost of local rescues in remote areas that get lots of out-of-town visitors, some of whom aren’t fully prepared.

As the commission looks toward the future, Lansche said, the plan will also address how the state’s recreation opportunities can adapt to climate change.

In northern Utah, that could mean more efforts to remove underbrush that fuels wildfires, which can damage water infrastructure or hurt drinking water supplies. For the southern part of the state, it might be finding ways to make river and lake recreation opportunities sustainable as an increasingly arid climate threatens future flows at popular destinations like the Colorado River and Washington County’s Sand Hollow Reservoir.

“It'll be a really good opportunity for the state to not just put recreation everywhere because we can or because we want to,” Lansche said. “It will really help focus resources in a way that helps strike that balance between what the landscape and the natural environment can allow and sustain and what those communities can do to provide that recreation.”

Lansche estimates that the final plan will be completed in July, along with a series of reports that USU has put together, and will be available to the public on the Division of Outdoor Recreation’s website.

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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