SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) — Local conservation groups are now expressing their concern with the new rules that more than triple visitors to ‘The Wave,’ one of the world’s most iconic geological formations located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness on the Arizona Strip.
With social media platforms contributing to an explosion of travelers visiting the world’s most stunning natural wonders, requests to visit the famous trail have skyrocketed in recent years — to more than 215,500 requests through November of 2020, when less than 4% of those who applied were approved for permits.
Under new rules approved by BLM this week which take effect Feb. 1, the number of hiking permits issued for the hike will increase from 64 people or 16 groups per day, whichever comes first, an increase over the previous cap of 20 visitors each day that had been in place for two decades.
“We need to find what that balance is,” Mike Herder, district manager of the Arizona Strip District for the Bureau of Land Management, said. “So few people actually get to experience this beautiful, beautiful feature.”
Following a public environmental assessment that lasted more than a year, Herder said the analysis determined that more people could mean more possible trash, human waste, vandalism, or man-made trails but won’t noticeably accelerate erosion of the fragile sandstone.
“We have a great monitoring program in place to help us identify when those things reach levels that are unacceptable,” Herder said. “When we get to that point, we have the flexibility to be able to adjust those numbers up or down.”
The Center for Biological Diversity plans to consider a lawsuit to challenge the decision, senior campaigner Taylor McKinnon said. He is also hopeful President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will reverse course.
“It is going to damage the unique geology there. There are going to be bigger crowds. It is going to be harder to get a picture without somebody else in it,” McKinnon said. “It really reflects the Trump administration’s general disdain for preserving the quality and ecological health of America’s public lands.”
Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah, said that while economic benefit from associated tourism is positive, increasing visitation without significantly better management could lead to overcrowding and bad visitor experiences while damaging the fragile desert landscape.
“Utah is kind of schizophrenic on how they treat this situation,” Butine said. “They really like the economic benefit of all these visitors, but protecting more land and managing it better is something they resist.”
Herder compared the Wave to the Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park near Moab in that it crosses a lot of open sandstone features. Herder said the impacts the public may be concerned about are “substantially unnoticeable.”
“For the most part, the trail across the sandstone is very difficult to follow,” Herder. “I’m not trying to downplay environmental effects out there, but I’m saying that two-thirds of the trail to ‘The Wave’ looks just like the trail to Delicate Arch. It’s very difficult to even follow exactly where the trail goes.”
Herder said the agency will mostly be looking for man-made trails, scratch marks on the rocks, open fins, or other geological features that are displaying an increase in erosion.
The new rule also provides the opportunity to increase the daily number of visitors up to 96 if the agency determine the trail can sustain it or decrease it below 64 if the increased visitation leads to significant negative effects.
“We want to send out the message to the public that these are your resources to enjoy and experience firsthand,” Herder said. “Please take care of them and allow us to take care of them.”
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