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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.

New Plans For Canyon Closures Near Moab Take Climbers And Slackliners Into Account

Looking into a steep red rock canyon
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
The North Fork of Mineral Canyon, shown here, is a popular raptor nesting and bighorn lambing and rutting area.

Mineral and Hell Roaring Canyons are home to one of the oldest bighorn sheep herds in the United States. Golden eagles and spotted owls also make their nests in the tall canyon walls. 

But climbers and aerial recreationists are increasingly drawn to the steep red rock cliffs and towers. And that’s threatening the animals’ habitat, which is one of the last remaining enclaves for these species to escape tourists in the Moab area, according to the Bureau of Land Management. 

To mitigate the issue, the Bureau announced in June that it was considering closing the two canyons to climbers and aerial recreationists, like base jumpers and slack liners. But it has backed off that plan after receiving feedback from both groups, who opposed the roughly 10,000 acre blanket ban. 

“The BLM received calls from climbers and organizations all over the nation,” said Rachel Nelson with Friends of Indian Creek, a climbing advocacy group based in Moab. “It really shocked the climbing community. Nothing like this has been proposed before.” 

Friends of Indian Creek sent a letter to the BLM during the scoping period in June, asking the agency to reconsider the blanket ban on their sport, Nelson said. It pointed out the most popular climbing routes in the canyons and highlighted the approaches climbers take to reach them. It also raised questions about the science behind the need for a ban and asked the agency to consider a seasonal ban instead. 

“Climbers are quite accustomed to voluntary seasonal closures,” she said. “There’s a culture in climbing to respect wildlife closures.” 

Based on that feedback, the Bureau is now proposing a seasonal permit system for the three most popular climbs in the area. Nelson said that’s better than nothing, but she would prefer to not have to deal with the hassle of permits. She added that if the permit system goes forward, it will be the first for climbing in the region—and it will represent a loss of what makes climbing in Moab special. 

“It’s very unrestricted and unregulated,” she said. “You leave aside those parts of civilization and get to live freely in nature. That’s really stayed a part of the climbing culture here, even in the face of restrictions on camping.” 

A herd of bighorn sheep shown in a canyon with power lines behind them
Credit BLM Utah
The Potash bighorn sheep herd near Moab is one of two remaining native desert bighorn sheep herds in Utah.

Like climbers, slackliners are relieved by the BLM’s new closure plan but not entirely happy with it either. The agency exempted two popular slacklining areas from the closure called Waterslide and Green River Bowl. The initial plan already exempted one of the most popular areas, called the Fruit Bowl, where a large annual slacklining festival occurs. 

But the advocacy group Slackline U.S. is still pushing for two more areas, the Colorado and Highlander bowls, to be removed from the closure plans, according to the group’s board president Dan Walsh. 

“We’re going to keep pushing for access but also make sure we educate ourselves about our responsibilities to the environment,” Walsh said, noting that the BLM has been receptive to their requests so far. 

Not everyone is upset about the proposed closure, though. The roughly 10,000 acres is within the area the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance lobbies Congress to protect through the Red Rock Wilderness Act every session. And the group is happy the BLM is considering closing it to protect the rare wildlife that calls it home.

“The expansion of recreation in Moab of all forms is something that’s not going away,” said Kya Marienfeld, a lawyer with the Wilderness Alliance. “It’s important that agencies take proactive steps when they see a use increasing dramatically, even when it's a hard call and it's going to upset a user group.” 

The Wilderness Alliance is also requesting the BLM close the canyons and their rims to motorized recreation, like ATVs, which are currently allowed under the agency’s proposal. The area would also remain open to hikers. 

The agency is accepting public comments on the plan until Sept. 21.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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