BLM releases environmental assessment for proposal to increase number of permits issued for The Wave

ST. GEORGE — The Bureau of Land Management Arizona Strip District has released the environmental assessment for its proposal to increase the number of permits issued to hikers accessing The Wave each day. In addition to seeking comments on the assessment, there will be a public hearing on the issue Tuesday in St. George.

The proposed change of management in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area could potentially increase the number of visitors to The Wave each day from the current 20 to a maximum of 96. 

The hike has become increasingly popular over the years, and thanks to social media and location’s popularity among photographers, demand for permits continues to increase, BLM Arizona Strip District Manager Mike Herder said. Last year, the BLM received over 200,000 requests for only 7,300 permits. 

“The word is out. And so at this time it has become necessary for us to at least look at the potential for expanding visitor use out there,” Herder said. 

The environmental assessment for the proposal was released Sept. 13, and while they identified several potential impacts, so far none of them have been considered to be “significant.” 

The release of the assessment marks the start of a public comment period that will remain open until Oct. 12. The goal of the comment period is for the BLM to determine the public’s overall opinion of the proposal as well as identify any additional environmental impacts not noted in the assessment, which analyzed two alternatives for increasing access to The Wave. 

The hike to The Wave in Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area, Ariz., date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

Alternative A analyzed the possibility of allowing up to 96 people – or 16 groups of six, whichever comes first – on the hike per day, which is the maximum number authorized in the BLM’s resource management plan for the area. Alternative B looks at the environmental impacts of allowing 48 people – or 16 groups of three – to access the area each day. Alternative C is the no-action option, meaning that no changes would be made to the allowance of 20 people on the trail per day. 

While the assessment only looked at two options for the number of visitors, land managers have the ability to decide on any number between 20-96. 

The BLM first increased the number of permits issued from 10 to 20 in 2002, with the slight increase intended to both preserve the environment and expand the visitor experience. 

“I think the original intent was to manage the area for solitude, to keep the numbers low and to just maintain that natural beauty without the area being, in essence, overrun by a large number of people,” Herder said. “But there wasn’t a demand at that time either.”

The hike to The Wave in Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area, Ariz., date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

While land managers want to accommodate the growing number of people who want to hike to The Wave but have been unable to acquire a permit, they are also concerned about the increase’s impact on the solitude of the area and a number of other impacts. 

Some of the impacts addressed were the potential for resource damage and litter, which they’ve already seen in the area with the current number of hikers, according to the assessment. 

Most of the damage they’ve noticed has been broken rock surfaces or scratch marks left from pointed hiking poles. They’ve also seen an increase in trash in the area, social trailing and human and animal waste. 

The BLM is currently trying to reduce the amount of resource damage and improper disposal of trash and waste by providing information to the public. 

“At this point in time there’s nothing in our plan to mandate people clean up after themselves, but we’re handling that through an education process,” Herder said. 

Another potential impact identified in the assessment is public health and safety. Because the 6.2-mile hike is in a wilderness area, the trail is not clearly marked and can be difficult to follow. Hikers sometimes become lost or experience heat illnesses, prompting search and rescue response and causing occasional fatalities. 

“That’s an issue that we very much want to address and make sure that the experience is safe and that people don’t get lost or injured out there,” Herder said. 

The BLM has considered a number of plans to help resolve the issue, including strengthening communication signals for people to use their cell phones in the area, adding additional signage, or installing a spot locator devise for people to use to navigate to The Wave and call for help when necessary. 

The hike to The Wave in Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area, Ariz., date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

Many of the comments they’ve received on the proposal include suggestions for implementing staggered start times for the hike. However, the BLM has dismissed this idea, deeming it unsafe to send some hikers onto the trail at a later hour, giving them less time to finish. 

Should the proposal be implemented, the BLM would consider adding additional route markers, trailhead parking and vault toilets. Herder said they are hoping to receive public feedback on the number of toilets and parking spaces that are acceptable and necessary near the trailhead. 

The BLM has already received around 100 comments on the environmental assessment so far, in addition to the 1,600 comments received during the scoping period. Herder said it is too soon to gauge the public’s reaction to the assessment yet, as they’ve received mixed messages about the proposal. 

“It is very interesting to hear people come back and provide their comments and say ‘I would love to get out to hike The Wave, so you should increase the number of permits,’” Herder said. “But we also see comments that say ‘I’ve been out there. It’s gorgeous, but the best part about it is the solitude, and so don’t increase it.’”

According to the BLM NEPA handbook, in order to provide the most helpful feedback, substantive comments should do one or more of the following: 

  • Question, with reasonable basis, the accuracy of information in the environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.
  • Question, with reasonable basis, the adequacy of, methodology of, or assumptions used for the environmental analysis.
  • Present new information relevant to the analysis.
  • Present reasonable alternatives other than those analyzed in the environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.
  • Cause changes or revisions in one or more of the alternatives.

“It gives people a really good idea of the data that we’re really looking for from people who’ve experienced it or are familiar with it or want to weigh in in a significant way so that we can analyze that,” BLM spokesperson Rachel Carnahan said. 

After the comment period closes, if there is no finding of significant impact, the BLM anticipates a decision will be made as early as Nov. 8.  

The BLM will also hold several meetings asking for public comment on the issue this month:

  • Sept. 24, 5-8 p.m. Red Lion Hotel, 850 S. Bluff St., St. George.
  • Sept. 25, 5-8 p.m. Page Police Department community room, 808 Coppermine Road, Page, Arizona. 
  • Sept. 26, 5-8 p.m. Kanab Middle School, 690 S. Cowboy Way, Kanab. 

Those interested in submitting a written comment can do so through the BLM’s ePlanning website. Comments can also be mailed to Brandon Boshell at the BLM Arizona Strip District office at 345 E. Riverside Drive, St. George, Utah 84790. The comment period will remain open until Oct. 12. 

Questions about the project can be directed to Brandon Boshell at 435-688-3241 or blm_az_vcnm_pcvc_comments@blm.gov.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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