This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Arches National Park's Fiery Furnace is one of Utah's finest hikes, with its narrow passages twisting through towering sandstone formations. But the two-mile route is limited each day to 125 people fortunate enough to get a permit or hire a guide service.
Starting next year, the National Park Service plans to stop allowing commercial guides to take clients into the Furnace, making their permits available to the public instead, and adding signs to assist visitors hiking on their own.
While the move, announced Sept. 12, sparked an outcry from Moab-based outfitters, officials said it is necessary because commercial demand for guiding permits has become impossible to manage.
Park rangers lead two trips a day, each with up to 25 hikers, and another 75 hikers are issued permits for self-guided trips. That leaves only 25 slots per day for outfitters who operate inside the park under a "commercial use authorization," or CUA.
When the program started in 2009, seven companies held authorizations, which cover the park service's entire southeast Utah group, including Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments. Today, there are 88.
"Those 88 CUA holders are competing for those 25 slots. It got unmanageable," park Superintendent Kate Cannon said. "Because competition among the companies got to be intense, there was discord and strange behavior."
She noted that Arches has two dozen other trails where guides can take clients, but the outfitting community is unhappy.
"Not one of them needs a guide. There has been a serious lack of cooperation between the park and the guiding community," said Mike Coronella, founder of Deep Desert Expeditions. The Fiery Furnace accounts for most of his business.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, quickly got involved, demanding Cannon reverse what he calls a "shortsighted decision" that came out of nowhere and will hurt the local economy.
"These commercial guides are the true stewards of the land, as their entire business model depends on the preservation and protection of these public lands," he wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to Cannon. "Further, guides provide recreation opportunities to those who otherwise may not have the means or know-how to experience the natural beauty of the Furnace. We should be expanding these programs, not restricting them."
In response, the park superintendent said she would "hit the pause button" on the decision and engage outfitters in further discussions.
Arches saw a record 1.4 million visitors last year. A tiny fraction get into the Furnace.
First-time Furnace hikers are encouraged to go with a guide because there is no trail and it is easy to get lost or unwittingly damage fragile soils. Currently there are no signs directing hikers where to go, but Cannon plans to install some and increase patrols.
Coronella said the absence of signs helps make the Fiery Furnace a great backcountry experience, in contrast to Arches' many well-trod hikes through places like Devil's Garden, Delicate Arch and the Windows.
Visitors are required to view an 8-minute orientation video, which explains how to hike through without getting lost or damaging fragile natural features, such as sand dunes and biological soil crusts.
Getting a permit to hike the Fiery Furnace requires months of planning ahead or securing a last-minute permit from a cancellation. Fees went up last year from $10 to $16, plus $8 for kids, to go on ranger-led tours. Nonguided permits are $6 and $3, for adults and kids, respectively.
Or, for now, you can dispense with the hassle and hire Deep Desert to guide you with its permit for $90.
Coronella figures he has hiked the Furnace 600 times since he got his CUA in 2010.
"That place is amazing. I'm truly concerned about its future. It has an intensity that is off the charts for the desert," he said. "It is physically challenging, a labyrinth. It's easy to get to the point that you have to trample something to find your way out and that's what's going to happen."
His company has guided 1,100 clients there this year and he is booked for the next several weeks.
"Guides are the watchful eyes. It is the private parties that have the impacts," Coronella said. "[The park service is] taking guides out and say that will improve resource protection. That doesn't make sense."