Calf Creek Recreation Area is one of the crown jewels of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah. Its tall waterfalls deep in a canyon of cream sandstone feed emerald pools in a riparian corridor lush with willows and cottonwoods – a respite from the heat and aridity of the desert.
Now the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area, has plans to make a mess of it by investing tens of millions of dollars in so-called improvements. The plans involve partial demolition of the existing historic parkhouse and campsites. The parking lot is to be expanded to more than twice its current size, from 30 spaces to more than 70, and an additional new parking lot will also be built. To do this, the BLM will bulldoze an oak grove and pave it over, displacing the shade and cool of native forest with heat-island asphalt.
The ostensible reason for the improvement of Calf Creek is that too many people are parking alongside Highway 12 or on the access road to the lot, which is consistently packed on high visitation weekends.
It’s true that Calf Creek is overrun. The resource is being degraded by the hordes of visitors. The riparian corridor has been trampled, off-trail desire paths have spread amok, the vegetation is being denuded, and animals are displaced. Intangible values such as silence and solitude are lost in the madding crowd, as the popularity of the site grows year after year. Is there human feces in the water? Probably. A urinal stench in corners of the canyon? For sure. Toilet paper blowing on the breeze? On occasion, the cacti are festooned. It’s the glorious evidence of industrial Homo sapiens’ presence.
Does the BLM propose reasonable measures to constrain visitation and end the overcrowding? Of course not. Like all federal land management agencies, BLM is captive to the mindless mantra that more visitation is always better. It’s demonstrably not so everywhere on our public lands, especially in fragile riparian areas like Calf Creek.
BLM’s plan to triple the number of parking spaces will only make conditions worse. What the hell is the agency thinking? (Readers might ask this question of the Grand Staircase’s recreation planner, Alyssia “Asphalt” Angus — as some locals affectionately refer to her.)
The 1996 presidential proclamation that established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, giving oversight of the monument to the BLM, waxed poetic on the biotic and ecological values it was intended to preserve – values that the BLM doesn’t seem to care about at Calf Creek:
As a result of the abundance of water in tributaries of the Escalante River, as well as various seeps and springs, the Escalante Canyons area is dotted with hanging gardens, tinajas, and riparian vegetation that provide oases of sorts in an otherwise arid environment. The area is distilled to its essence in Calf Creek Canyon, the home of towering Navajo Sandstone cliffs, lush vegetation, cultural sites, and a perennial stream with two waterfalls: a slender 88-foot plunge in the upper part of the canyon, and a 126-foot cascade farther downstream that is one of the more elegant waterfalls in the entire Southwest.
A group of concerned citizens familiar with Calf Creek have proposed alternatives to BLM‘s obnoxious plans, appealing the agency’s decisions of record numerous times. To no avail. BLM hasn’t bothered to address their concerns nor has it seriously considered their suggestions for more modest actions at Calf Creek to address crowding.
Sage Sorenson, a retired BLM backcountry ranger, has taken up arms in print against BLM’s benighted subservience to the more-is-better paradigm. Joined by a number of other public lands activists, Sorenson has written BLM proposing, first, that the agency take a hard stand on roadside parking when cars overflow from the existing lot. Put up no parking signs, and enforce the rules by ticketing without mercy any illegally-parked vehicles. Second, Sorenson suggests that the agency institute a day-use reservation system that limits the number of daily visitors. The BLM already does this at another of its crown jewels, Coyote Buttes, so why not here too?
That Sorenson’s entreaties have been ignored is to be expected. BLM sees the solution to hypervisitation at Calf Creek in budgets for bulldozers, backhoes, concrete and tarmac. But a gentler touch on the land is needed, one that, at the very least, maximizes the value of the existing infrastructure and minimizes the impact of the surfeit of people.
Of course, it goes without saying that what really needs to be done to save delicate Calf Creek from being loved to death is shut-down of all access for a set period. Let’s get our greasy human mitts off the place, leave it alone for a few years, and let the land and wildlife and water recover. Such a draconian eco-centric measure will never come to pass, as we continue to view public lands through the narrow prism of selfish anthropocentrism.