Smaller Parks Fight Big-Park Problems

As outdoor jewels like Arches National Park become more popular, they struggle with the problems of overuse.

Jayne Belnap speeds through residential Moab, the red sands flying as her car bounds through a swollen stream, up to her foothills home. Her license plate - the Utah centennial edition showing Arches National Park - is well-known around town. "Cryptos," it reads.

Short for the scientific term "cryptobiotic," cryptos are the Elmer's glue that literally holds the soil together. Without them, the lands around Moab would transform from the fertile subtleties of the desert into barren, moving sand dunes. And tourists are trampling the stuff to dust.

Like many of the country's national parks, Arches is being harmed by the people for whom it was set aside. When Belnap moved to Moab 15 years ago, the salmon-colored buttes and mesas - I.M. Pei in rock - were still a secret. Today, the secret's out.

"The parks are suffering from both lots of visitors and the kinds of things the visitors want to do," says Kathy Westra of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a parks watchdog group. Things like camping and hiking, biking, and skiing.

But while the Park Service has long debated the proper use of larger parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, many of the nation's smaller parks have recently begun to feel the crush of humanity, too. As these areas become more fashionable on the tourist circuit, park rangers are looking for ways to combat the rise of everything from automobile traffic to jet skis.

* Along Lake Crescent in Washington's Olympic National Park, jet skis speed across a landscape once known for its solidtude and serenity. NPCA doesn't think whining jet skis are appropriate. The jet ski industry does, and is ready to fight for its recreational rights.

* In Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park visitors must now buy a ticket for guided tours of the park's three most popular cliff dwellings. Previously, there were no limits on the number of people who could visit the sites, and while a ranger was present, the visitors could walk freely through the dwellings.

The idea was to protect the nation's best-preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings. "It offers us a little bit of control," says park spokeswoman Jane Anderson. "In the last few years, [the] ticket system ... has really helped us a lot in terms of parking."

* Haleakala National Park was becoming as well known for the din of tourist flights as it was for the large, colorful craters of its dormant volcano. The park, whose visitation has increased 5 to 10 percent each year, is now protected by national legislation prohibiting flyovers below 12,000 feet. "People wanted a quiet wilderness experience, not a big, bold kind of echo," says Haleakala Park Ranger Mike Ing.

Yet tourists continue to walk onto the cinder area of the sloping terrain, killing some of the rare plants and insects there.

It's happening in the cinders of Hawaii just the way it's happening in the cryptos in Arches. But like Haleakala with its fly-over ban, Arches is pioneering an answer to the overcrowding problems.

In 1992, the Utah park became the Park Service's laboratory for looking at overcrowding issues when a novel management program called Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) was launched.

In addition to surveying visitors, VERP allows superintendents to make key decisions about park management based on information gathered on crowds, noise, and how these factors put plants and animals at risk.

While Park Services officials say they are pleased with the results, many locals feel Arches is still besieged by waves of visitors.

Bob Costaldo, a New Yorker transplanted to Moab, has witnessed this transformation - and may be a part of the problem. He came to "color country" for the beauty and peace, and began "four-wheeling" on an all-terrain vehicle in 1984.

Four years later, he moved here permanently, where he and his wife set up a memorabilia shop. Now they're watching a new kind of recreationist come in that even scares them.

"It used to be that when people came here, they seemed to enjoy it for what it's worth. You didn't see a woman with two Pomeranians on a leash," he says. "Now you see people who seem to be here by accident, who seem to be on some tour company's itinerary. Moab is on the hit list of what to do now."

Some regular visitors have been scared off. "I won't go back to that campground," says Allison Thorsted, a Salt Lake City mountain-bike enthusiast. "The place is just too rowdy. The kids are up all night partying and then get up at the crack of dawn. There aren't enough bathrooms, and there's not enough manpower."

Certainly, staffing is a problem at many parks, particularly some of the smaller ones. The dearth of green-jacketed rangers comes at a time when the number of tourists continues to rise.

IN 1996, the nation's park system logged 265.7 million visitors, the result of a precipitous climb since about 1950 when only 25 million or so people set foot in the parks. Arches, basically a drive-through park of only 73,000 acres, counted 856,000 visitors last year, up from only 290,000 in 1980.

"The problem is our infrastructure," says Jim Webster, Arches chief park ranger. "The road systems were designed in the '50s and '60s, so we've got a road that's very narrow and not designed to accommodate large motor homes."

And, of course, there are those who don't stick to their motor homes. Rangers are seting up formal parking areas, putting up fences, and ticketing people who park near trailheads, thus destroying road shoulders.

"There are a lot of unplanned trails created because it's easy to walk out in the desert to get that one Kodak moment," Mr. Webster says. "But there's a lot more realization of how sensitive the plants and soils are now. We've found that tremendous visitation has led to a lot of resource damage to cryptos."

Campers are the worst, Belnap adds. The back country mania has brought mountain bikes and tent sites to the area. The fact that they leave tracks is one thing; that they stomp down everything within a quarter mile is another.

Belnap still hopes that a better-educated public will help preserve the park, but she doesn't really believe it will happen.

"What's the social value of going to Arches?" Belnap asks. "It's like a zoo there. It's not pleasant; it's like walking down a New York street. But most of the visitors are from cities, and they don't know that what they're having isn't fun."

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