The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently seeking public input on new plans to better manage dispersed camping, protect resources, and improve visitor experiences in three high-use areas near Moab, Utah. The BLM’s Moab field office, which manages 1.8 million acres of public lands in southeastern Utah, including 830,000 acres of lands proposed for wilderness designation under America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, is considering new dispersed camping plans for the the Labyrinth Rims/ Gemini Bridges Special Recreation Management Area, (120,037 acres), the Two Rivers Special Recreation Management Area (9,180 acres), and the Utah Rims Special Recreation Management Area (16,704 acres).
Over the past decade, the rapid expansion of human-powered recreation across public lands in Utah has resulted in increasingly adverse impacts to wilderness values, wildlife, visitor experiences, and natural and cultural resources. According to a 2021 report by Dr. Christopher Monz, environmental impacts of human-powered recreation can be substantial and long-lasting, including soil compaction and erosion, loss of biological soil crusts, the spread of noxious weeds, destruction of cultural artifacts and landscapes, and wildlife habitat fragmentation and displacement.
In Moab, this growth is particularly noteworthy. The area sees more than 3 million visitors annually, many of whom camp on BLM-managed public lands. As a result, the agency is seeing a proliferation of vehicle tracks and user-created routes, unattended campfires, more impacts to wildlife, destruction of fragile cultural sites, and damage to other natural resources. Accordingly, the BLM is revisiting its rules regarding dispersed camping in three of the most popular and highest-impacted areas.
Most BLM-managed public lands in Utah are open to “dispersed camping,” meaning that visitors may camp in areas without dedicated campgrounds and associated facilities. According to the BLM, chief among the new management options it is considering is moving the three focus areas from an “open dispersed” to “designated dispersed” model. This means that free, no-amenity dispersed camping will still be available, but that instead of camping anywhere, visitors must set up in a designated site, usually marked with a sign or placard to indicate that it is a “designated” dispersed campsite.
After an intensive inventory of existing disturbed camp areas, the BLM is proposing to select for designation sites that do not adversely impact resources such as wildlife habitat, cultural sites, and other visitors’ experiences. According to the agency, these proposals “are designed to make dispersed camping more sustainable in high-use areas, while reducing user conflicts and protecting cultural and natural resources.”
Additionally, the BLM is also considering requiring that all campers in these areas use a portable toilet system to pack out human waste (something already required by Grand County, Utah), a fire pan to prevent the proliferation of fire rings and associated trash and to make unintentional wildfires less likely, and prohibiting wood cutting and gathering.
Recreation ecology tells us that the best management for recreation impacts is proactive management– especially when it seeks to accommodate likely continued increase in demand while also taking preventative steps to protect natural landscapes and resources. Although these new proposed management changes are certainly in response to a proliferation of negative impacts, we are heartened to see the BLM considering steps now to follow good ecological management practices.
Below are some important points for the BLM to consider when analyzing what kind of management actions it should take in these high-impact dispersed camping locations around Moab. Please help us reinforce these points in your comments. The more you personalize and speak to your own experiences in any/all of the three areas and emphasize your appreciation of the wildlife, cultural resources, and wilderness values they contain, the better and more well-received your comments will be!
Please encourage the BLM to move to a “designated dispersed” camping model in these three planning areas, and to select camping spots for designation only if their selection will not jeopardize wildlife habitat, breeding, and connectivity; cultural resources; and wilderness values like solitude, scenic values, and natural appearance and character. Public comments are due by June 23, 2022.
- Dispersed camping on public lands near Moab is an important use for visitors and locals alike, but the unmanaged proliferation of disturbed sites in the past decade has resulted in degraded ecological and cultural resource conditions and user experiences.
- Unmanaged dispersed camping and associated vehicle use can fragment habitat and result in loss of nesting, breeding, and rearing habitat for important local wildlife like raptors and desert bighorn sheep, and can directly eliminate populations of important native and endangered plants like Navajo sedge, San Rafael cactus, and Cisco milkvetch through trampling and surface-disturbance.
- Cultural resources like ancestral habitation, ceremony, storage, and art sites have been gradually but consistently degraded as a result of campsite creation and expansion through vandalism, trampling, soil erosion, and illegal artifact collection.
- Visitors seeking campsites often find human waste, trash, hacked trees, and trampled vegetation, while other recreationists are negatively affected by trash and impacts at trailheads, along heavily-used recreation trails, and at important scenic features.
- By moving to a designated dispersed camping system, the BLM can best balance visitor use and enjoyment with protecting natural and cultural resources.
- A sustainable dispersed camping system is one that is manageable, forward-thinking, and provides for a range of user needs and experiences.
- The BLM should avoid designating sites that will impact lands proposed for wilderness under America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act and other BLM-identified wilderness-quality areas.
- The BLM should require that visitors carry portable toilet systems and pack out all human waste, use fire pans at campsites, and refrain from wood cutting and gathering in and around dispersed sites.
- The BLM should not establish dispersed sites within 0.5 miles of suitable nesting locations for raptors, including bald and golden eagles.
- The BLM should not designate campsites in canyon bottoms or within 300 meters of canyon rims in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges management area to protect sensitive habitat for desert bighorn sheep.
- The BLM should designate dispersed campsites away from cultural resources and naturalize past visitor impacts and disturbance that, if left unchecked, could lead to future damage. The BLM should also consult directly with Native American Tribes regarding the potential designation of specific campsites.
Thank you for participating in this important public process!