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Rolly: Utah's crown jewels of tourism could be threatened by the state's shortsightedness

Published April 22, 2016 6:06 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The recent proposal to build a large sand and gravel operation at the doorstep of Utah's spectacular Capitol Reef National Park provides a glimpse of what might happen if the state took control of public lands now managed by federal agencies.

The proposed sand and gravel pit sits on land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) which administers a trust fund for public schools that is fueled by revenues from its land.

SITLA has given approval for the project near Teasdale and would charge annual rent of $1,200 and a royalty of 70 cents per cubic yard of material removed. The operator still needs to go through other regulatory hoops and a zoning change from the Wayne County Commission.



But the incentive for SITLA is clear — to generate more revenue for the school trust.

A huge concern for area residents, though, is the impact it would have on one of Utah's most popular tourist attractions that just last year was given a gold tier designation from the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) — an endorsement that leads to increased tourism because of the nighttime celestial experiences visitors can expect.

Capitol Reef is a national park, so it is protected by the National Park Service. But surrounding areas that are state-owned can encroach on the park and its tourism potential through such things as a sand and gravel pit.

The gold-tier designation was awarded to Capitol Reef just last year and already there are indications it is having a positive impact on tourism in the area.

Capitol Reef had 941,029 visitors in 2015 and so far this year, after the designation was given, visitation is up 22.65 percent at the park, said Jay Kinghorn, communications director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

Bryce, on the opposite end of Utah's Scenic Highway 12, does not have a gold tier Dark Sky designation, but it has areas in the park that are hyped by local officials as dark sky vistas that have helped boost tourism there, as well.

Kelly Bricker, who chairs the Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah, cites a recent study that showed at Bryce, 10 percent of overnight visits in the park were astronomy related. Another study showed that 67 percent of the visitors at Bryce responded that they learned one or more educational or scientific topics while at the park, with more than half citing astronomy as one of the topics they learned about.

Bricker says Utah has six gold-tier dark sky designations, the most of any state in the United States.

Efforts are underway to develop a Dark Sky corridor for tourists from Montana to Arizona, with Utah's parks the crown jewel of the corridor.

Great Britain is also developing a chain of dark sky areas and a study there showed that for every pound spent on infrastructure to increase the dark-sky quality, nearly two pounds are returned in tourism dollars.

John Barentine, program manager for IDSA, said the association needs more information before it can assess what affect the sand and gravel pit would have on the dark sky designation of the park, which attracts a number of star-gazing groups every year.

If it is a 24-hour operation, the association would be concerned about the lighting, he said. Locals have expressed concerns about the increased traffic, the demand on the area's precious water resources and the dust that would blow into the park.

SITLA seemed to have approved the lease for the sand and gravel pit without giving much consideration to the importance of dark sky designations or what impact it would have on tourism in general in the area.

It's focus in the revenue that could be generated for the education trust fund.

Whether that's good for the overall picture or not can be debated, but it makes one wonder what priorities would be in southern Utah's communities surrounded by some of the most beautiful and interesting vistas in the world and where tourism is a major economic engine for the state.

State statistics show that tourism brings in $7.9 billion in spending from visitors each year, which translates into $1.09 billion in state and local taxes.

Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature has approved $4.5 million for a lawsuit to fight the feds for control of 31 million acres of public lands within the states boundaries. And another nearly $10 million is on the table for future lawsuits.

Perhaps the discussion should pivot from dark skies to dark ages. —

 

 

 

 

 

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