In 1927, a few thousand acres of sandstone desert characterized by large eroded openings called windows or arches was set aside and protected from further abuse and degradation by a proclamation from President Herbert Hoover. It was called Arches National Monument. Over the years the monument grew in size and in 1972 Congress upgraded Arches to national park status.

Today the park encompasses some 75,000 acres and deals for better or worse with more than 800,000 tourists a year--a far cry from the 1500 or so who wandered into the monument annually in the 1940s.

In the summer of 2002, the average Arches visitor would have every right to assume that, as a national park, Arches is well-protected by law to maintain its pristine integrity and beauty. And indeed a plethora of rules and regulations controls almost every aspect of the park experience. Visitors are provided a list of DO's and DON'Ts at the park entrance where they pay their fee. Signs warn visitors that they must only camp in the campground and that they cannot gather wood and they must keep dogs restrained at all times and that pets are not allowed on the trails. It is illegal to gather rocks or flowers or feathers or anything that naturally occurs in a national park. It is illegal to deface or mar a sandstone wall or arch.

While some people might argue that the parks are over-regulated, most of these restrictions and limitations are necessary. With almost a million visitors a year, the lack of controls would be disastrous.

But Arches has an Achilles Heel; in fact, it has two of them. For all its controls and restrictions, Arches National Park has practically no rules to regulate technical rock climbing and commercial day use operations. It's hard to say whether this lapse is an oversight or whether NPS administrators simply do not believe that a problem exists. But these two loopholes have combined to create a situtation at Arches that could have serious and negative long-term implications for the pristine nature of its backcountry.

The best way to tell this story is to follow the chronology, from the time I became involved in this issue two years ago, to the way things are today. (For regular Zephyr readers, some of this will sound slightly familiar; I've alluded to this story before but never dealt with it head on, until now.)

Here's what happened...

In late summer 2000, a friend of mine described a tour she'd taken to a remote and seldom seen section of the park. I knew the area well from my ranger days and was stunned when she explained that the trip was part of a commercial tour. It didn't seem possible to me that anyone could be leading paid customers into the backcountry, off-trail, to such sensitive locations on a regular basis. In addition to the hike, these tours called for a dramatic denouement in each trip--a technical rappel into a series of canyons. The tour operator pounded steel anchor bolts into the rock at several locations, using a hand-held drill to make the holes. At other locations, he left ropes and slings and carabiners and other equipment as part of a permanent anchor system. Ultimately, I learned that five different tours were being offered inside the park.

In September 2000, I called Chief Ranger Jim Webster, who said he was unaware of any such commercial group operating in the backcountry and promised to check it out. A couple weeks later, Webster got back to me. Because the Arches commercial use plan had not been updated in years, and because of a legislative gridlock in the U.S. Congress, operations like the one offered by the canyoneering company were considered legal and legitimate and, Webster explained, there was nothing the park could do about it.

I inquired about the climbing ethics being employed and again, I hit a stone wall. There was nothing the park could do. Slowly it all came back to me. In January 1988, the park's climbing policy had been watered down considerably from what it had once been. Now I learned that there is very little a climber can NOT do at Arches. There is no regulation that prohibits the use of permanent bolts. Climbers are simply "encouraged to abide by," according to the amended superintendent's directive, "a clean climbing ethic." They are "encouraged to leave dull-colored webbing at belay and rappel stations." In addition, they cannot climb any arch identified on a USGS map and Balanced Rock is off-limits.

And that's it. Anything else goes. If a visitor walks up to the Devils Garden trailhead and scratches his name on a rock with a car key, he'll be ticketed and fined. But if he pulls out a bag of steel anchor bolts, and hangers, and a hand drill, and sling rope and starts pounding the bolts into the rock at three foot intervals, all the ranger can do is encourage the climber to stop.

With regard to the commercial operations, Webster suggested that future tours in the Fiery Furnace would be required to watch the standard video that is mandatory of all non-commercial users and pay the NPS fee. That was as much as he could do.

I decided to visit SE Utah Group Superintendent Jerry Banta. Banta was a ranger in the Needles District in the early 1970s and now, decades later, he has returned to one of his favorite places on earth. I discovered that he was completely unaware of the commercial operations at Arches.

Before the appointment, I had hiked one of the commercial routes and documented cross-country resource damage and the array of climbing equipment that was being left in the park. At one location, the tour company anchored its rope to a pinyon tree with carabiners and sling material. The anchor rope itself--the very rope that the paying customers expected to trust with their lives, was left at that location each time they rappelled the 100 foot vertical canyon wall. Nothing degrades rope like sun and rain and wind, and apparently this vital part of the rappelling procedure was left to endure the elements.

Months later, according to Banta, Arches staff removed the climbing rope and associated gear, but the tour company never sought to re-claim it. Today the company uses a self-removing anchor at this location, but continues to use bolts in the sandstone on some of the other routes.

With regard to the Arches climbing policy, Banta called it one of the weakest he had ever seen in a national park. After reviewing NPS web sites and their climbing policies, no one could possibly disagree--no other national park in southern Utah is so lax. Even at Canyonlands N.P., which operates under the same SE Utah Group administration, the policy provides much more protection. Among those protections, "No new climbing hardware may be left in a fixed location." If that rule were applied to Arches, it would have eliminated most of the commercial routes that are now offered.

As the problem of allowing unrestricted commercial day use at Arches became more apparent, the NPS needed to find out if it could, at the superintendent's discretion, terminate commercial activities in the Arches backcountry. After almost a year, the U.S. Solicitor's Office determined that it could. On September 21, 2001, Arches National Park Superintendent Rock Smith notified two companies to "cease commercial canyoneering activities in Arches National Park by December 1, 2001." It further stated:

"We...are beginning the process of bringing all commercial day use activities into compliance with the Code of Federal Regulations. Part 5.3 of Title 36 of the CFR states, in essence, that engaging in or soliciting business in park areas, except in accordance with the provisions of a permit or contract is prohibited.

"The Park's Commercial Visitor Services Management Plan, written in the early 1990s, exempted commercial day use sightseeing and day hiking from the requirement to obtain an incidental business permit or concession contract. This exemption is not consistent with 36 CFR 5.3. Commercial outfitters providing services within the park must be authorized to do so under either a concession contract or incidental business permit (IBP)."

In other words, Arches National Park's own rules violated the Code of Federal Regulations! Regardless of what one might think of the environmental impacts these canyoneering companies cause, it's also easy to understand their frustration. Arches Superintendent Smith suggested that the companies may be able to apply for an IBP and re-start their tours in the Spring 2002. One of the companies did just that.

Meanwhile, it became exceedingly difficult for this publication to obtain information from Arches relevant to the ongoing permitting process. Finally, on March 17, 2002, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking for access "to all documents related to the current permitting process that would allow two operate day tours in Arches National Park."

On April 24, I received a reply from the NPS and was provided almost all of the material that I requested. After wading through dozens of documents, letters, and intra-staff memorandums, I gained a clearer picture of how this conflicted situation arose. It was also apparent that the Arches staff does not see a current problem with commercial canyoneering or its climbing policy.

It begins with a letter from then-superintendent Walt Dabney, to Matt Moore, the owner of one of the canyoneering companies. On August 22, 1998, in response to an inquiry from Moore about commercial tours, Dabney, in effect, gave his blessing if not his permission. To convey the twisted logic that Dabney provides in making that decision, it's necessary to read the letter. Here is an excerpt:

"Commercial technical rock climbing is prohibited. Commercial canyoneering is allowed and managed under our commercial backpacking and hiking regulations. Technical rock climbing is defined as 'ascending or descending a rock formation utilizing rock climbing equipment.' Canyoneering is defined as 'cross-country travel involving occasional ascending or descending a rock formation utilizing rock climbing equipment.'

"The distinction between technical rock climbing and canyoneering can be ambiguous..."

Indeed. But ultimately, "using this criteria," Dabney continued, "we have determined your proposed routes would be canyoneering and are permitted under current commercial use regulations." But then Dabney pointed out that "presently we do not require permits for commercial day use hiking in the park backcountry."

"Ambiguity" hardly does justice to what occurred here. To suggest that these commercial tours include some "occasional rappels" as if they were an afterthought is ludicrous. The technical rock climbing aspect of the tour IS the tour. It is the vortex, the centerpiece, the highlight, if you will, of these day trips.

If the multiple-technical rappels were removed from these tours, the companies would have significantly fewer customers. But if you removed the obligatory nature lessons that are supposed to give educational legitimacy to these tours, I doubt there would be a significant drop in business. This is a commercial technical rock climbing business. But to broaden its customer base, it sticks to the "descending" aspect of the climb, which requires much less technical skill.

Still, it's difficult to fault the company as much as it is the Park Service. The former superintendent, in effect, gave Moore permission. In addition, there didn't seem to be much communication between Supt. Dabney and the Arches staff. As late as September 2000, Chief Ranger Webster insisted that he had no knowledge of any backcountry commercial activities; yet Dabney's letter was already more than two years old. How could a commercial canyoneering company run tours almost daily for two years without the Arches staff knowing it?

Later, as Arches personnel dealt with Moore's IBP application, they seemed determined to ignore issues, conflicts, and concerns raised to them by this publication. Among the documents that were obtained via the FOIA request was the "Environmental Screening Form (N-16"), a part of the permitting process. Included in this form is a checklist called "Section B: Mandatory Criteria." It asked a series of questions about the short-term and long-term effects of the proposal, in this case, granting an IBP to the canyoneering company. Among the items were the following:

"Would the proposal, if implemented...

* Have highly controversial environmental effects?

* Be directly related to other actions with individually insignificant, but cumulatively significant, environmental effects?

* Establish a precedent for future action or represent a decision in principle about future actions with potentially significant environmental effects?

* Have the potential to be controversial because of disagreement over possible environmental effects?"

All four of those questions, if answered honestly, deserved a "YES" reply. Yet Arches Superintendent Smith signed the "Categorical Exclusion" attached to this document, writing, "On the basis of the environmental impact information in the statutory compliance file, with which I am familiar, I am categorically excluding the described project from further NEPA analysis (National Environmental Policy Act). No exceptional circumstances (i.e. all boxes in Section B...are marked 'NO.') or conditions in section 3-6 apply.)

To approve the IBP, the Screening Form's Section B required all "NO" answers and that is what the Park Service provided.

Of particular concern in the Mandatory Criteria were the "future actions" and "cumulative effects" created by the establishment of commercial backcountry activity, an issue that I raised with the NPS as far back as the autumn of 2000.

In an earlier email to the park, I had posed this question: What if these companies are successful and their businesses expand? What if the NPS sets limits on use for a particular tour? What would stop a company from expanding the number of tours it offers? If it meets the criteria that it so easily met this time, what would keep these companies from offering 20 backcountry tours a day in the park? Or 30? What would stop a company from exploiting every backcountry region of Arches National Park?

And what would stop other individuals from forming their own companies?

After reviewing the permit, it was apparent that there aren't that many hoops a commercial canyoneering company has to jump through. In fact, I posed that concern to Chief Ranger Webster when I interviewed him and Supt. Rock Smith in May...

"If I don't damage any endangered plants and animals, get a first aid card, a general liability insurance policy, pay the Park Service $250, and you approve my routes, I could get a commercial permit?" I asked.

"Sure," said Webster. "You want an application?"

It was about that easy for Matt Moore and his company. In late March, just four months after he was told to "cease operations," his company was issued an IBP and he was back in the park. Moore and his guides have already led more than 100 tours into remote backcountry areas of Arches since April on five different routes.

But Webster and Smith insist this is not a done deal. As the new regulations grind their way slowly through the political and administrative process, commercial activities at many levels in the park may be affected when that process is complete. Smith and Webster spoke at length on the topic and here are some of their observations during an interview with both NPS administrators in May.

Smith: "We are expecting new commercial regulations at any time. They're in rulemaking right now. When that happens, I think the commercial service plan for the whole SE Utah Group will be re-done and all these activities looked at. Whether they're appropriate or allowed. And what restrictions if they are allowed. That'll all be developed in that document....The IBP that Matt Moore has is just for one year. We did look at it as a temporary thing because we knew these new regulations were coming out."

Webster: "We have to look at the big picture and it takes resources to do that--money and people and expertise. Until then the commercial services plan is a way to manage that kind of use and we're going to be looking very closely at canyoneering outfits, understanding that there's a lot of interest in it and a lot of people trying to make a living from it.

"We're going to look at all those uses that are now being handled by Incidental Business Permits. We need a framework from which to work. Also, talking about a Backcountry Management Plan, the need is great. We have a lot of issues--boundaries, access issues, rock climbing...these are all things we can look at in a systematic way and look at all that damage."

But when will these protections be put in place? According to Webster it could be years.

"The Park Service is writing regulations currently, not us locally. The concessions regulations. So it's all wrapped up in that whole concessions bill that the Congress has debated for years...We're waiting for those regulations that still haven't come out yet because it's been massaged and negotiated at the U.S. Congressional level. You and others will have the opportunity to comment on those regulations once they are in place. Then we have guidance in how we can begin the commercial planning process. So it takes a long time...The law comes out of Congress and we write the regulations."

Would the Park Service have the authority to limit the number of locations in the Arches backcountry that commercial tours could be allowed?

Webster: "I would say we would. There are all kinds of opportunities and options.

Smith: "Putting limits on the number of concessions is something the park can do. We will be able to interpret those new regulations to fit the resources of this park.

But will they? If years pass before these park rules are in place, and canyoneering companies have established themselves in the park, will the NPS have the wherewithal to stop those operations, even if resource damage from those activities is clear? And why weren't there enough questions raised by the "Mandatory Criteria" form to delay the issuance of an IBP in March? What was the rush?

These canyoneering companies represent a whole new ballgame in the way parks are used commercially. There is nothing like this, so nobody can be sure just how successful they will be, but there is a similar precedent.

Forty years ago, the commercial river running industry was in its infancy. No one dreamed that in a very short decade or two, commercial river use would explode. Motorized trips through the canyons allowed many companies to significantly increase their business and, of course, with increased traffic came comparable impacts. But by the time the NPS attempted to deal with the motorized river industry, it was too late--the industry was too entrenched to be eliminated. Today the river companies are highly regulated but the river is over-used. You can't run that many people through a wilderness and say it's a wilderness experience. It's a recreational experience.

That, ultimately, is what these canyoneering companies are offering. And the Park Service and the public has to decide if that kind of use for fun and profit is appropriate for wilderness lands that are best protected by being left alone.