Brandishing permanent markers and sticky notes, the group of recreation managers prepared to attack an oversized map mounted on the conference room wall. The event was a listening session sponsored by the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism (IORT) in Ephraim, Utah, in preparation for the development of a new outdoor recreation strategic plan for the state. The map was wrong on a few details – inevitable when you’re tracking thousands of miles of recreation areas – but people with knowledge on the ground were more than happy to provide corrections and updates.
Recreation managers had gathered from all over central Utah—counties like Juab, Sevier, and Sanpete, from smaller towns and even smaller towns, from national parks and state parks, forests and rangelands. They all had some responsibility for managing outdoor recreation areas in the area – OHV trail systems, boat ramps, historic sites, campgrounds, visitor centers, trailhead, restrooms and more.
IORT was commissioned to gather local perspectives on outdoor recreation issues to present to the state’s Outdoor Recreation Commission, and this was one of seven listening sessions held statewide. Moderators wanted to hear the essentials; the challenges and pathways small communities face when hosting recreational visitors and trying to protect and conserve outdoor spaces, what they hoped for in the future and what they need to achieve those goals. The information they have gathered and synthesized will guide the creation of the new Strategic Plan, a roadmap for how the state should invest in and manage outdoor recreational resources.
From e-bike regulations to “sprinter van invasions,” Central Utah faces unique outdoor recreation management challenges, said Jordan Smith, director of IORT at Quinney College of Natural Resources. The sometimes-overlooked region — north of Utah’s iconic sandstone arches and south of high-end ski resorts — has felt the pressure from the growing demand for recreational opportunities that the rest of the state has experienced, but it doesn’t always have the infrastructure or institutional attention , which it takes to handle the real flood of temporary visitors.
A popular four-wheeler destination, Little Sahara, for example, swells from a lonely, rolling landscape of sand dunes and wind to a temporary city of 50,000 vacationers a few times a year. The crowds need toilets, dumpsters, clean water and policing, and they depend on the nearest city to provide them — Delta, which has a population of just over 3,000.
There are the inevitable injuries that need to be treated, parties that need to be broken up, and missing drivers that need to be tracked down. These types of events put tremendous pressure on local communities, places that don’t always have the infrastructure to handle crowds and that don’t always reap the economic boons that come with such events.
“We’re half a tank of gas from Salt Lake City, which makes for an interesting and sometimes frustrating dynamic on the weekends,” said Utah Senator Derrin Owens, a workshop attendee. Visitors don’t necessarily pay for hotel rooms, gas, or restaurants when they come. They bring their own food and supplies, leaving a lot of damage in their wake that needs to be managed and repaired by local communities.
The region hosts hundreds of thousands of outdoor recreation visitors each year, tourists who flock to places like Mount Pleasant to traverse world-class OHV trails, to Fish Lake for a weekend at a backcountry campground, to swim at Palisade Reservoir or to visit state parks like Otter Creek, Yuba, Fremont Indian and Piute.
Central Utah used to have multiple opportunities for easygoing outdoor recreation, places where you could “go and get lost and be yourself,” said Amy Myers, director of tourism for Sevier County Economic Development. But as more popular destinations in other parts of the state are reaching capacity and beyond, recreation seekers are moving farther afield and arriving en masse in places that used to be considered primarily local hotspots.
The biggest driver of recovery growth in the state? Population growth, Smith said, much of it natural growth as Utah’s population grows, rather than an influx of new residents from outside. There are a lot of growing pains to be felt.
There are some difficult conversations that need to be had now, Smith said. In one way or another, changes are coming for all of Utah’s recreational areas. These workshops are an important first step in better understanding and addressing all of Utah’s diverse outdoor recreation needs and aligning together toward a shared vision and strategy to ensure we continue to build a strong, sustainable outdoor recreation economy that improves the quality of life for the better of everything utahans.