by Bill Boyle
I am continually amazed at the small number of San Juan County residents who enjoy the stunning beauty of Canyonlands National Park. The Needles, Chesler Park, Angel Arch, Salt Creek and Druid Arch are just a few of the sites that are almost unknown to local residents.
I hope to address some of the reasons for this tragic situation. Just how was it that San Juan County’s crown jewel became a black hole for area residents?
I think that one of the reasons San Juan County residents have abandoned Canyonlands is that Canyonlands has abandoned San Juan County.
Canyonlands National Park may have never been created without the efforts of a number of enthusiastic supporters from San Juan County. Chief among them are Norman Nevills and Kent Frost.
Nevills, of Mexican Hat, was the first to take visitors through the amazing gorges and rapids of the Colorado and San Juan rivers.
Frost began offering guided tours into the canyon country not long after the end of World War II. Kent and his wife, Fern, built a successful business by offering access to the spectacular backcountry of Canyonlands.
Their genius was combing an intimate knowledge of the rough country with a knack of adapting to challenging circumstances.
The Frosts and the Nevills were capable. They ran savvy businesses and knew how to market their product. The result was a great balance of business and stewardship.
Soon, others saw the business potential and also began offering tours. What was once just Norman and a boat, or Kent and Fern and a jeep became booming business for outfitters.
The tourism scene has changed dramatically in the nearly 50 years since the creation of the national park in 1964. Now, in order to enjoy a guided tour in San Juan County, you have to go to Moab.
At the current time, the National Park Service allows concessionaire permits for four-wheel drive and bicycling tours into Canyonlands National Park by Escape Adventures, Holiday River Expeditions, Magpie Cycling Adventures, NAVTEC Expeditions, OARS Canyonlands, Rim Tours, and Western Spirit Cycling. In addition, jet boat, whitewater and canoe trips on the rivers are available through 15 companies.
Not a single concessionaire is located in San Juan County even though all of the Needles District and almost all of the Island in the Sky district are in San Juan County. Canyonlands National Park includes hundreds of thousands of acres in San Juan County and less than five acres in Grand County.
Just look at the communities involved to get a feel for the possible impact of the concessionaire license. Moab is booming with active residential and commercial activity. Anyone who drove through Moab during the annual Easter Jeep Safari last week can vouch for that.
Tourism business builds on itself. In addition to the tours offered in the national park, these businesses and more offer successful tours on BLM, Forest Service and private land.
Visitors from throughout the world come here to enjoy the beauties of San Juan County, and they end up spending their money in Grand County.
It is part and parcel of a disturbing trend for San Juan County. All too often, surrounding communities are the prime beneficiaries of our spectacular scenery. Just think about it. If you want to enjoy the Canyonlands, go to Moab. If you want to enjoy Monument Valley, go to Kayenta. If you want to enjoy Lake Powell, go to Page.
One of the challenges is that there have not been concessionaires in San Juan County to seek a permit… until now.
Four Corners Adventures is in the process of opening an office in the Grist Mill Inn in Monticello. They already have offices in Blanding and have permits to offer tours on BLM and Forest Service properties. However, they have been unable to secure a permit for tours in the national park.
Jared Barrett, of Four Corners Adventures, was told that the Park Service had reserved a permit for a San Juan County concessionaire in a previous management plan.
But as he started to make his way through the byzantine bureaucracy, he was told the management plan was undergoing changes and the San Juan County permit would not be issued.
At the current time, the ten-year contracts of the three existing four-wheel drive concessionaire permits are set to expire at the end of 2013. The permits will be rebid, but two of the three current permit holders have the right to match the lowest bid in the competitive bidding process.
It is a Catch22 situation. San Juan County does not have a resident permit because there hasn’t been a tour business. But a tour business cannot develop because no permits are available.
How can a new business in a new location compete with the existing businesses in secure locations? It sounds like the decks are stacked against the development of four-wheel drive tours from San Juan County.