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America's National Parks: Preserves or Playgrounds? - 2002-05-07

Each spring and summer, millions of Americans visit their national parks from the Everglades in southern Florida to Alaska's Denali Preserve from Sequoia National Park in California to the Cape Cod National Seashore on the Atlantic Coast. The tourism dollars those parks bring in fuel the economy of surrounding communities. But in Moab, Utah - the tourist activities can pose a threat to those lands.

"I like the steep ledges. They look cool," said Jake, 7.

At Arches National Park in Utah, Jake is surrounded by blue-green sage and fantastically twisted juniper trees. And he's discovering that this park isn't called "Arches" for nothing. Towering red rock arches frame a deep blue sky. As Jake munches on a sandwich, his dad explained why he loves this park.

"The views. Sharing it with my family. Showing them these things for the first time. It's just amazing," Jake's father said.

Many tourists who visit Arches National Park also drop by Moab, Utah, which is eight kilometers away. The former uranium-mining town has a population of only 5,000, but in recent years, it's become southeastern Utah's major recreation center.

For six months of the year in the depths of winter and the hottest part of the summer - it's almost as quiet in Moab as it is along the hiking trails of Arches National Park. In fact, even in the downtown tourist district, the loudest sounds at dawn come from birds that flock to a tree-lined stream.

All that changes during the spring and fall tourist seasons, when Moab's population can double.

As the sun rises on these mornings, thousands of visitors pour out of their hotel rooms fire up their cars, trucks and jeeps then roar off into the countryside. At dusk, these same tourists jam the local restaurants.

Perhaps the busiest week comes around Easter, when Moab hosts the annual Jeep Safari, which attracts over 1,500 jeep and sports utility enthusiasts, adding to the already large number of hikers, bicyclists and vehicle drivers who throng to Moab every spring.

"The motels are all full. The restaurants are all full. People are buying gas and car parts and things, you know," Maggie Wyatt said.

Maggie Wyatt manages much of the federal government land around Moab, which includes 800,000 hectares near Arches and Canyonland national parks. She said Moab depends on tourist dollars, and she wants recreation on these public lands to help the town prosper. But she doesn't want a thriving tourism industry to damage the parks. She said some groups are more considerate than others.

"Our experience is that the Jeep Safari participants themselves are extremely well behaved," she said. "They don't want to lose their permit, they want to be able to continue doing this every year; they stay on existing routes that are approved for the Jeep Safari, they caution people not to be driving off those roads. They're very diligent about taking along a port-a-potty and picking up trash. They're just great. You know, I wish every one would behave that way."

Unfortunately, Ms. Wyatt said, of the one million people who visit Moab's parklands every year, far too many are careless.

"They drive off-road in places where they're not supposed to. They camp where they're not supposed to. They tear limbs off trees for firewood," she said.

According to many experts, this damage is long lasting.

"The U.S. Geological Survey in fact has done studies in this very area, and we now know that one tire track through fragile cryptobiotic soil may take 50 to 300 years to recover," Liz Thomas said.

Ms. Thomas is a Field Attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The cryptobiotic soil she refers to is a microscopic, living groundcover that helps bushes and trees survive in this harsh, semi-desert climate.

To encourage responsible behavior on these lands, designated trails are marked, and the park service has the right to fence off areas that are improperly used. But there's so much public land, and so few people to monitor it, most of the visitors who break the rules never get caught, and most areas they injure must heal on their own.

"You make your tracks off [the road], the next person doesn't feel so guilty about making their tracks off. They're just following somebody else," Ms. Thomas said.

The damage that jeeps can do is clear in a popular tourist spot near the Moab town dump.

The "Dump Bump" is a sandy piece of property that you can walk across in 10 minutes. Here, jeeps rev up for its star attraction - a long rock outcrop that is almost five meters high. Jeep drivers love to make a try at driving straight up and over that steep rock face.

The Dump Bump is not an attractive site it's coated with burned tire rubber and motor oil. The soil leading up to that rocky ledge is barren of plants and has been churned by so many tires, it's as fine as talcum powder. Environmentalists have said that similar destruction happens on a less intensive scale, wherever vehicles go off-road.

Back on the hiking trails of Arches, Jake's dad said that he enjoys both hiking and jeeping, and - like most recreational drivers - he stays on designated trails.

"You know, you get this many people out anywhere and you're going to have a couple of yahoos that are going to damage something. But I think the majority of the people respect the land and enjoy it," he said.

To minimize damage and protect the land for that majority of people, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has proposed banning vehicles and other heavy use on some roads in sensitive habitat areas. The group also helps the park service build fences that encourage responsible off-road vehicle recreation.