For years, Moab’s Mill Creek Canyon, a sensitive wilderness study area right next to town, has been intentionally left off the official guide books. But increasingly, people are finding the canyon anyway, and they are in danger of loving it to death.
It’s actually two canyons, known to locals as Right Hand and Left Hand, which descend from the Lasal Mountains to Moab. Although still primitive, the area has long been impacted by grazing and extensive water diversions for irrigation. Yet the biggest change today is from people who come to love the place. For the past 9 years, Sara Melnicoff has volunteered to clean up the mess that the visitors leave in the canyon.
"Some days I’ve picked up 75 beer bottles, diapers, condoms, broken glass, fast food containers. Usually it’s one shoe, a sock, I found a trampoline up at Left Hand waterfall below, and I carried it out, I think it’s about a mile and a half."
The canyons are being assaulted on an unprecedented level: tour buses disgorging hundreds of unguided hikers at a time, much of the creek filled with a WaterWorld-density of bathers, defacing of ancient petroglyphs, and a remote waterfall that’s become the location for huge daily frat parties that frequently result in difficult medivacs for injured divers.
Melnicoff says she understands why some local moms are now reluctant to let their kids go up the creek.
"Well, I have to confess, I’m a chicken, and I cannot go there anymore when it’s crowded. But I have in the past seen people coming there as early as 10:00 in the morning with beer, a lot of underage drinking. As the canyon has become more well known, the number of people visiting has increased dramatically, and that’s been happening for over a decade. But it’s really peaking right now, and what I observe is destruction of the natural areas as people are searching for the right path to the waterfall."
This summer Melnicoff and other Moab residents began an educational campaign in the hopes of creating a higher level of protection for Mill Creek. Rory Tyler, a local hiking guide, has made thousands of trips into the canyons, and spent countless hours cleaning graffiti at petroglyph sites.
"You start out with the astonishing beauty. Then you add the fresh water, and it has been a place that’s perfect for people ever since people got here. There is so much archeology up there, so much rock art."
Tyler says this year a profound change became evident:
"There were more people there than I’ve seen in the last 20 years. And I looked into it, and it’s on the internet now, and that’s what has changed things up in the creek – bus loads of people, people from Europe, groups of 100, 200, 300 at a time, going in there to this place that, five years ago was sort of a locals’ secret."
Tyler’s new web site, SaveMillCreek.org, promotes a community-wide discussion. Among proposed solutions is to make Mill Creek a fee area, just like the adjacent Sand Flats. Sand Flats became a local Recreation District in the 90s, and in short order a transformation took place: bandit roads and camp sites were closed, amenities were added, and volunteers recruited. Andrea Brand, for the last 8 years the program manager, explains how it works.
"If the BLM had collected the money itself, it would have gone to Washington, DC. And so, what we are under the county what we are is an enterprise fund. So all the money that we operate on comes from our fee collection."
Those fees add up to a half million dollars a year, and Sand Flats essentially became a county park. It’s still an unusual arrangement, and one that was not popular at first among the hard-partying crowds.
"Eggs thrown at the booth, paint balls thrown at the booth, our visitors being harassed, different things, and being kind of in fear of staying up there. So we’ve really needed that law enforcement presence. Two people, I mean remember, you only have two rangers for two million acres. Some people just need a ticket."
As yet, there’s no money for rangers at Mill Creek. Meanwhile, suggestions include trying to reduce visitor numbers by banning buses and limiting parking, and/or to harden and improve the most popular trails and add national park style amenities like foot bridges, restrooms, and trash cans.