Calf Creek Overhaul; Chaco Court Ruling
Also: Tuesday Trivia and Real Estate Randomness
Public Lands Crowding Chronicles
THE NEWS: The latest example of public lands getting overrun, and a land management agency’s questionable attempt to fix it, is playing out at the Calf Creek Recreation Area in southern Utah. The trailhead parking lot regularly overflows, so the Bureau of Land Management decided last week to make it bigger, along with other “improvements.” Many locals are not impressed.
THE CONTEXT: Lower Calf Creek Falls has suffered what might be called collateral damage from Utah’s Mighty Five marketing effort. The big-bucks campaign, launched a decade ago, lured people from all over the world to the five national parks spread out across the southern part of the state: Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands. These folks even slathered London cabs with images of Delicate Arch to entice the Brits to come to Canyon Country.
As we all now know, the campaign succeeded beyond most folks’ expectations. Public lands advocates went from worrying about declining park visitation as late as 2011 and 2012, to fretting about overcrowding, especially at Zion and Arches National Parks. Millions of people each year — and as many as 20,000 per day — crammed into Zion’s Narrows, waited in line to view Delicate Arch, or swarmed the pie shop in Capitol Reef.
But it isn’t just the parks, themselves, that sag under the weight of all those people. It is also a selection of choice locations along the route from park to park, including the eminently Instagrammable Lower Calf Creek Falls located in the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The place has always been popular, but it’s been especially inundated by visitors in recent years, prompting the Bureau of Land Management to do something about it — sort of. Instead of limiting visitors, however, they are planning to enlarge the parking lot to accommodate more people.
You can’t really blame folks for wanting to go to Calf Creek. It’s located just off Highway 12, a popular route connecting Bryce Canyon with Capitol Reef National Parks and, as one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the U.S., is a sort of asphalt destination of its own.
From a high slickrock ridge offering expansive views in every direction, the motorist drops precipitously into the verdant Escalante River gorge and up the bottom of its tributary, Calf Creek, before reaching a campground and trailhead and parking lot. Show up early enough and you’ll find a pleasant, quiet place — in spite of its close proximity to the highway — and your choice of one of about 30 spots in the parking lot. Snagging one of the handful of sweet camp spots is another matter altogether, requiring persistence and a lot of luck.
From there it’s a three mile hike up the canyon bottom, the entirety of which is a sort of oasis, with willows and cattails and dragonflies and beavers and even fish in the little stream. Finally one reaches the falls, where a stream of water splashes down from a sandstone pouroff into a sand-floored amphitheater.
Get there early enough and you might have the place almost to yourself. But the crowds start congealing around the pool around noon and by mid-afternoon it’s an all out zoo. When you get back to the parking lot you’re bound to find it overflowing with vehicles along with dozens of cars lined up in the shoulder of the narrow highway.
The BLM recognized that something needed to be done. Their plan includes:
Adding 40 more parking spaces by expanding the existing lot into what is now the oak-shaded group picnic ground;
modernize and replace existing infrastructure such as restrooms and a cool old bridge;
widen the access road;
add wi-fi capabilities;
modernize the campground and add more spaces.
Okay, so first off, let me apologize for not bringing this to y’all’s attention sooner: I missed out on it until a reader tipped me off yesterday, meaning I couldn’t alert you to the public comment period (which happened way back in November). I’m sorry. My bad.
What’s wrong with the agency’s plan? For starters, the idea of wrecking an oak grove and historic picnic ground to make room for more cars is absurd and makes no sense. Same goes for modernizing the current facilities: It would damage the historic character of the spot. You can overhaul the plumbing and fixtures without scraping and replacing the structure. Adding a few campsites — if it could be done to fit with the rest of the campground design — might be okay, but it’s hard to imagine that working.
Secondly, shouldn’t the goal be to reduce crowds, not attempt to accommodate them? It’s now understood that adding lanes to a congested highway will only attract more traffic, and therefore more congestion, a phenomenon known as induced demand. The same is likely to happen here: Add more parking spaces and you’ll just entice more passersby who otherwise might be deterred by the lack of parking, thereby thickening the crowds — and heightening their impact — on the trail and at the falls.
I don’t cherish the idea of turning people away from places like this. It seems unfair and opposed to the spirit of public lands. But in this case there are few other feasible options aside from blasting a giant parking garage out of the sandstone cliffs. It’s probably time to put a hard limit on the number of visitors allowed to park at the trailhead at any one time, either by banning parking outside the existing parking lot or implementing a timed-entry reservation system (same goes for the campground).
There are dangers to this approach: It might just encourage folks to go to nearby places that are equally lovely but far less crowded — (and no, I’m not naming these places). A better outcome would be that the crowds just keep going until they get to the next national park, where they can join the already burgeoning numbers.
As I noted, the BLM has already issued a record of decision. But there’s still time to sign a petition calling on the agency to alter its plans.
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Drilling Down on Drilling
THE NEWS: A federal appeals court finds the Bureau of Land Management violated environmental law by failing to account for the cumulative impacts of approving nearly 200 drilling permits near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
THE CONTEXT: For over a century, oil and gas drillers have poked and prodded and slurped up the vast stores of hydrocarbons under the 10,000-square-mile geologic dish known as the San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.
Over the years companies have targeted different commodities: Early on it was oil over on the Hogback formation in the Navajo Nation’s Shiprock Agency and natural gas just outside Aztec. Later they came for the oil in the badlands around Chaco Canyon and in the Horseshoe-Gallup Field. Then in the 1990s and early 2000s the biggest drilling frenzy of all was for coalbed methane, or natural gas adsorbed to coal seams, that mostly played out in the central and northern part of the Basin.
It was during that time that the BLM, which oversees drilling on public lands and for federal minerals under private, Indian allotment, and tribal lands, released an overarching resource management plan for drilling across the New Mexico portion of the Basin. The 2003 plan opened the door for nearly 4,000 new wells — on top of more than 23,000 existing active wells — within the agency’s jurisdiction. Most of those were expected to target coalbed methane.
But around 2010, the shale revolution — a.k.a. “Fracking” or a combination of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing targeting oil and gas in shale formations — arrived. Drillers found that the seemingly spent oilfields near Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Navajo communities of Lybrook, Counselor, and Nageezi still had more to offer if drilled with this more intensive method.
The BLM began issuing drilling permits at a rapid-fire pace, relying on the 2003 plan, which had become instantly outdated as soon as fracking came on the scene. The new wells were far deeper, used more water, and emitted more pollutants than the old coalbed methane development. But the agency didn’t seem to care and handed hundreds of permits, prompting Diné CARE and other groups to sue. They alleged the agency had failed to account for the cumulative environmental and public health impacts of the new drilling technique.
In 2019, the courts ruled in the citizen groups’ favor on the water issue, sending the agency back to redo five of its environmental analyses. It responded by making an addendum to the old resource management plan, which the BLM said applied to the remaining 3,000-plus projected wells. The groups disagreed and sued again over 370 drilling permits, saying that the agency failed to consider cumulative impacts of all of the development on greenhouse gas emissions and water supplies, didn’t account for the global warming potential of methane emissions, and did not factor in the public health consequences of HAP emissions, i.e. carcinogens such as benzene or toluene.
Last week the appeals court ruled in favor of the agency on some counts. But it also found that, when issuing 199 permits, the agency “violated NEPA because it failed to take a hard look at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impact of GHG emissions and the cumulative impact of HAP emissions of the APD approvals.” The court did not vacate the permit approvals, instead sending the issue back to the district court to decide what to do. It did, however, block the BLM from issuing any new permits under the old plan until the district court makes its decision.
In late January, Canada-based Anfield announced it was beginning a preliminary economic assessment of its Slick Rock uranium and vanadium project in San Miguel County northeast of the Dolores River. The company acquired the property in a land exchange with Uranium Energy Corp last year as part of a settlement between the two firms. The property consists of 293 unpatented lode claims and covers nearly 4,900 acres. Anfield has been sending out some investor-luring pheromones … er … press releases announcing acquisitions and plans to revive mills and mines and so forth. For example, last month they said they were expanding their Artillery Peak holdings in Mojave County, Arizona, that are “proximate to its wholly-owned Shootaring Mill.” Proximate? They are about 280 miles apart, as the raven flies, and more than 500 miles by road. Anfield says it wants to revive the mill. It also recently acquired property in Beaver County and Emery County in Utah.
And don’t forget to check out the Land Desk Mining Monitor Map tracking uranium and “green metal” mining activity in the Four Corners region.
Random Real Estate Room
We ran into this
little gem scary compound looking thing while surfing the under-$500k Zillow listings across the West. It’s a lovely walled-in warehouse(?) with 7 bedrooms and five bathrooms in Hildale, Utah, for just $399k. Here’s some Tuesday Trivia for you: Why would someone in Hildale want so many bedrooms and bathrooms? Put your answer in the comments below (open only to paid subscribers).
in real estate speak: Large western getaway compound, ideal for corporate retreats, or big families. In a small, religious, conservative community near Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, surrounded by public lands for your recreational adventures and exploring. Act now, won't last long at this price.
The wives will put up with a lot of things but sharing a bathroom isn't one of them.