Paria

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a draft environmental assessment for public input on its proposal to increase visitor use in fragile areas of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona, most specifically the Wave and Coyote Buttes North. These areas are almost exclusively day use, being only a few miles hike roundtrip.

What is astounding about this proposal is that BLM tacitly admits the reason for increasing visitor use has nothing to do with protecting Wilderness. BLM states, “There has been a shift over the last 10-20 years in the type of user to the wilderness. Many visitors lack knowledge of basic backcountry ethics and skills, as well as an understanding of land navigation principles. They are focusing more on a singular attraction such as the Wave, and less on wilderness qualities such as solitude, and an undeveloped natural experience.” In other words, the goal of BLM’s proposal is to inappropriately accommodate excessive visitor use rather than protect the Wilderness it’s entrusted with.

It doesn’t stop there. In addition to the proposed 250 to 500 percent daily visitor increase in the Wilderness, BLM is considering drilling into rock to place trail markers, despite the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on installations. BLM is also vague about possibly installing a phone either at the trailhead or inside the Wilderness itself. The plan is a far cry from the mandate of the Wilderness Act for an enduring resource of wilderness.

The proposal also fails to take concrete steps to address other problems in the Wilderness that stem from day use via the Wire Pass Trailhead, which accesses the Wave. Specifically, there are too many impacts from horse use in the canyon bottom leading into Buckskin Gulch, which is the first part of the hike to the Wave. (Ironically, Buckskin Gulch and other canyons of the Paria River system are closed to overnight horse use, but not day use by horses.) Additionally, BLM is proposing to increase parking at other trailheads, which could lead to overuse in other fragile areas of the Wilderness that do not currently have the name recognition of the Wave, and which still offer a relatively primitive experience. Work at trailheads, such as to reduce resource damage, must not lead to increased use in the Wilderness. The plan could turn Wilderness into something like a city park, overrun with crowds, rather than a Wilderness that offers solitude and a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness was first established as the Paria Canyon Primitive Area in 1969, and was one of the first areas BLM recognized for its wilderness values. (The Federal Lands Policy Management Act, the law that made BLM-administered lands subject to the Wilderness Act, would not be passed until 1976.) If BLM can degrade the long-recognized Paria Canyon area—a region of spectacular slot canyons, geological wonders, and rare species like desert bighorn sheep—what chance do other BLM-administered Wildernesses have to remain wild?

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Photo: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, The Wave, by Trevor Huxham via Flickr.

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