One of Utah’s most respected resort towns is undergoing renovations, but not everyone is happy with what the Bureau of Land Management has in mind for the Calf Creek campground and trailhead.
Opinion is divided in Garfield County, where some would like to see more visitor accommodation at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, while others oppose adding more sidewalks to historic sites like Calf Creek.
Parking lots and campgrounds are being expanded under a plan approved by the BLM last week. Calf Creek is 15 miles east of Escalante on State Road 12, considered Utah’s finest back road. Tucked away in a narrow canyon between sandstone walls, the site features the sprawling monument’s only campground and access to the 3-mile trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
The plan, detailed in an Environmental Impact Assessment released Feb. 2, includes reconfiguring the site to double the number of parking spaces to about 70 stands, adding several more sites to the small campground, and modernizing its aging facilities.
“The need for this proposal stems from the fact that the infrastructure is decades old and in need of repair, replacement or upgrading,” said BLM architect Allysia Angus at a recent virtual meeting. The area of the site will be expanded from 8 to 9 hectares.
The path to the falls is realigned from the campsite and bypassed on the west side. Work could begin as early as this year and upon completion in 2024, the Utah Department of Transportation will ban on-highway parking for a half-mile on either side of the Calf Creek entrance. Funding is provided by the Great America Outdoors Act.
“We’re really able to take advantage of some funding streams that don’t come on a regular yearly basis,” Angus said, “so we don’t want to miss those opportunities.”
The need is also being driven by increasing attendance at the memorial in southern Utah, forcing the BLM to consider how to accommodate the public. On particularly busy days, parked cars line the highway after Calf Creek’s 30 spaces have filled. Critics claim the agency’s approach is short-sighted and could damage the natural resources the monument was designed to protect.
“We can’t just keep expanding,” said Sarah Bauman, general manager of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. “We support visits because it is a monument but in a way that protects its wild nature as a place for people to go and enjoy a wilderness experience. It’s a delicate balance that we haven’t quite figured out on public lands yet.”
Bauman and others fear the parking lot expansion could lead to further overcrowding and detract from the historic character of the quiet spot with its picnic area in a creek-side oak grove.
Responding to concerns about the fate of the oak grove, Angus said only about 15% of the trees would be felled to make way for the newly designed day and camping areas.
“The whole grove of trees will not go away,” she said. “It is definitely important to me that we only remove the growth that is necessary for long-term functionality on site.”
According to the monument’s retired manager, Carolyn Shelton, the site overhaul was initiated years ago and is needed to better accommodate visitors in “front country” locations near the monument’s few paved roads.
“It has nothing to do with politics. It’s all about getting the funding. We had a failing infrastructure back then and very unsafe conditions with people parking along the freeway,” she said. “These were things that were evaluated 12 years ago. It’s things that have to happen. We have to do these [front country] Places accessible to a more diverse population and made available to people from Chicago. That’s just the reality of more people.”
The campground and 13-site day-use area was developed in the 1960’s and the larger 5,835-acre Calf Creek Recreation Area was designated in 1970 to encompass most of the creek’s watershed, a quarter-century before President Bill Clinton designated it as a national monument .
“What struck me the most when I moved there in 1990 was how well it blended into the landscape. And to change that, and to cram in more campsites and take out vegetation when there isn’t room for it,” said Craig “Sage” Sorenson, a retired BLM recreation planner who lives in Escalante. “There is also the question of parking. It was built and engineered to match the trail’s usage capacity. If we add more to that, we will impact the path and heritage values of the Lower Falls.”
Sorenson has circulated a petition urging the BLM to reconsider its plans and add the site to the National Register of Historic Places. More than 1,000 have signed the petition online and on paper.
“This area gem was carefully and masterfully designed in the 1960s with the landscape and people in mind,” the petition reads. “It is a special place that has provided memories, comfort and beauty for generations.”
In other words, the website doesn’t need an overhaul, just a touch-up that preserves its original character.
“Why not build campgrounds elsewhere in the monument?” asked naturalist Jim Catlin, the retired director of the Wild Utah Project, now renamed the Sageland Collaborative. “If you widen it, they will come and you have to widen it again. The only long-term solution is a reservation system.”
The campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis and hikers pay a fee of $5 per vehicle. The BLM declined to consider a permitting or reservation system, but Sorenson and Weinick say that’s exactly what is needed. The current 30 car lot limits the number of people on the 3 mile trail and day use area to about 100 each.
“They want to accommodate 200 to 300 people on this trail. That doesn’t make any sense,” Weinick said. “Until you get the cars off the road, you have to go to a permitting system. They want people to come because they want their money, but the answer is that there are no more parking spaces. Why don’t they take the money? [earmarked for the parking lot] and create a permitting system.”
Among other proposals that the BLM considered but did not analyze were the construction of a helipad and dance floor, and the conversion of the campground and day area into parking lots.
“The areas between the cliffs and the creek on either side of the campsite are quite cramped and heavily overgrown. In order to convert the campground or parts of it into parking lots, we would have to remove wide strips of vegetation next to the creek,” said Angus. “It’s a bit challenging to navigate through the campsite, which has a dead end [the] East side and conversion to parking lots would likely exacerbate traffic flow problems.”
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https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2023/02/11/concerns-mount-over-escalante/ Concerns about the expansion of the Escalante campsite are piling up