Red Rock Canyon dispute: Access Fund resists BLM
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently drafted amendments to the popular Las Vegas Recreation Center Management Plan. And the public comment period ends today.
Would more access restrictions and higher fees help solve Red Rock Canyon Park’s biggest problems? The BLM’s most recent proposal for management of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in southern Nevada takes this approach, charging visitors more money and tightening access restrictions.
A look at the region’s biggest challenges reveals why you’d want to reduce traffic and increase cash flow. Visitor activity in the sensitive desert ecosystem has skyrocketed in recent years. Social trails and graffiti are popping up everywhere, and park staff are struggling to keep up.
From the BLM‘s perspective, policing traffic and charging more money per person can help alleviate the problems. Channeling royalty proceeds into infrastructure and staffing in the “Red Rocks,” as climbers and locals call it, can help protect the resource.
But escalation advocacy group Access Fund sees the BLM’s “fewer people, more money” approach as problematic. And he wants to offer an alternative.
“We want to find a diet alternative this is very restrictive and also places a greater financial burden on people,” said Katie Goodwin, policy analyst for the Access Fund. “We want a site-specific plan based on better visitor education and resource protection, rather than just restricting numbers.”
To achieve this, the Access Fund urged its constituents to participate in the BLM’s public comment period for the new measures. If you want your voice heard, you need to do it quickly – the public comment period ends today.
But before you do, it’s worth understanding both sides of the argument and focusing on the specific site in question.
Paid or Free? Popular Calico Basin Face Changes
The BLM currently manages Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area under a business plan it first published in 2018. In that year, changes to the existing management plan included a Entry system for the Scenic Loop (access road to major park attractions), which already required paid access and new fees for the area’s only campground.
The area’s fare structure has not changed since then, and access to the nearby BLM-controlled Calico Basin has remained free.
Here’s the catch. For the first time, the BLM offered to charge visitors to Calico Basin. The smaller designation adjacent to Red Rocks comprises two distinct areas. Red Spring consolidates a picnic area and boardwalk, and Kraft Mountain consists of a rapidly popularized destination bouldering area.
Drivers pay $15 per vehicle to enter the scenic loop. Motorcyclists pay $10 and anyone walking or biking pays $5. Following the steps in the BLM’s proposed fee structure for the loop, the vehicle fee to Calico Basin would be $20. (To see the amended business plan for proposed fee changes to Red Rocks.)
In a modest, previously free-to-use area that visitors and families with young children alike often frequent for a quick hike or a picnic, $20 might seem like a slap in the face. Las Vegas resident Pete Foley hikes Calico Basin weekly. He says local Fox affiliate KVVU that most of the people he meets there are not outdoor enthusiasts.
“It’s a way for people who aren’t hardcore to get into nature, to get into hobbies to get into hiking, and I’m really concerned if we take that away, we’re excluding a whole group of people,” Foley said. “Potential people who are going to be involved with nature and the environment.”
In more codified terms, the Access Fund echoed Foley’s concerns. He also said the BLM’s Calico Basin Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP) assessed that the fee increase would disenfranchise visitors.
“Higher fees will put people in the community down… who can’t afford to pay more to enjoy public lands. The BLM itself recognizes that paid management, especially when combined with gates and timed reservation systems, has a disproportionate impact on the ability of marginalized communities to enjoy this very special place,” said he declared.
Parking Restrictions? Elude Solutions Planners
The BLM has also proposed limiting access to Calico Basin with a parking reservation system. Potential visitors would reserve a spot online at the Red Spring or Kraft Mountain parking lot. Reservations would be closed once availability for a specific timeslot runs out.
This is roughly the same system implemented for the Scenic Loop in 2020. The previous year, a study showed that the area was generally operating at less than 300% capacity from 2016 to 2019. Anecdotal evidence has show the number of visitors had started to spiral out of control.
The Access Fund also disputes this initiative, but its suggestions for alternatives to either plan remain vague.
Admittedly, a simple solution to Calico Basin traffic doesn’t exactly jump off the page. The area abuts on one side against the sandstone pinnacles that define the park. On the other side, an increasingly overgrown residential area with private streets and driveways weaves its way.
There is no obvious place to put more parking surfaces without further asphalting the desert.
In a report Attached to its public comment submission forms, the Access Fund advocates “alternative, less restrictive strategies to ensure sustainable management that balances recreation access with natural resource protection” in the Calico Basin.
Asked what that would be, Goodwin said, “We don’t argue there needs to be a higher level of management in Calico, even as user numbers and impacts increase. But when you look at how they can actually handle it, a lot of the trouble comes from people parking illegally. Some of our suggestions include increasing visitor education and managing the parking situation to reduce the burden on the people living there.
Visitor education, she said, would include measures to educate users about local flora and fauna. It might also discourage them from committing common desert hikes, like walking off the beaten path and leaving animal waste behind. Infrastructure such as signage and staff augmentation could play a role – a point the BLM also makes.
It is less clear what solution to parking overflow the Access Fund is considering. Goodwin mentioned “increased enforcement,” but acknowledged that issuing tickets for more illegally parked cars would disenfranchise visitors no less than time and pay-limited parking.
And wouldn’t a parking attendant who said to someone, “Turn around, the lot is full” amount to missing a reservation?
This is probably an oversimplification of what the Access Fund has in mind. But it also serves to illuminate the incisive complexity of the issue. In the case of Calico Basin, a clear either/or does not seem to exist.
Especially considering the potential ripple effect in other areas.
Calico Basin restriction could increase burden elsewhere
What happens when you start charging for one thing but offer something similar for free on the side?
It’s true; more people are gravitating towards the free option. This is what Goodwin and some local climbers think it will happen to other outlying areas of Red Rocks if Calico Basin becomes a chargeable area.
The canyons south of the park along State Highway 159 will remain free to access for the foreseeable future. Places like First Creek Canyon and Mount Wilson offer free hiking and parking off the highway. The same goes for Black Velvet Canyon, although it is a bit more difficult to access.
A likely outcome of the BLM plan would be that Calico Basin and the Scenic Loop would fill up with bookings on any given day. (In the loop, reservations fill up relatively often during peak season.) If and when that happens, it could force people into the southern canyons — where there are no restrooms or trash cans. and very few road signs to help keep people on track. .
In addition, the trails there are generally more demanding. The hikes are longer and the destinations are much further away.
In the Calico Basin, on the other hand, tourism resources are abundant. Signage with trail and ecology information is prominent and frequent, bathrooms exist, and shade is available.
The implications are obvious. Increased traffic could mean a much bigger impact on under-resourced canyons. And if casual hikers visit the remote canyons expecting a foreland experience, they might encounter some unpleasant surprises.
The public comment period ends today
The public comment period on the BLM’s new fee proposal and management plan for Red Rock National Conservation Area ends late this afternoon. To make your voice heard, you can go through the “Take action” page or email the BLM directly at this address: BLM_NV_LV_RR_FEE_STATION_IMPRVMTS@blm.gov.
You can also register with the Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition. The group is monitoring the situation closely and is actively carrying out increasing awareness-raising measures in the region.