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Salt Creek Canyon Closure

The National Park Service (NPS) is amending its regulations for Canyonlands National Park by prohibiting motor vehicles in Salt Creek Canyon above Peekaboo campsite, in the Needles district. This action implements the selected alternative of the Middle Salt Creek Canyon Access Plan Environmental Assessment (EA).

Salt Creek is the most extensive perennial water source and riparian ecosystem in Canyonlands National Park, other than the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Salt Creek road is an unpaved and ungraded jeep trail that runs in and out of Salt Creek and, at various locations, the trail's path is in the creek bed. It requires a four wheel drive vehicle to drive, and previous vehicle use of the trail periodically resulted in vehicles breaking down or becoming stuck and requiring NPS assistance for removal. Salt Creek is also the heart of the Salt Creek Archeological District, the area with the highest recorded density of archeological sites in the Park. A tributary canyon to Salt Creek contains the spectacular Angel Arch. Until 1998, street-legal motor vehicles were permitted to travel in Middle Salt Creek Canyon along and in the Salt Creek streambed for approximately 7.2 miles above the Peekaboo campsite, and an additional one mile up the Angel Arch tributary canyon. The Salt Creek trail does not provide a route for motorized transit through the Park or to any inholdings within the Park.

The previous management plan affecting Salt Creek, the Canyonlands National Park Backcountry Management Plan, was completed in January 1995. This plan, among other things, established a permit system and a daily limit on the number of motorized vehicles authorized to use the Salt Creek trail above Peekaboo Springs. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) challenged the Backcountry Management Plan in Federal district court. Among other things, SUWA alleged that continued vehicular use of Salt Creek would cause impairment of unique park resources and thus would violate the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act and Canyonlands National Park enabling act.

In its June 1998 decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah interpreted the Organic Act unambiguously to prohibit activities in national parks that would permanently impair unique park resources, and concluded that the NPS's decision to allow vehicle travel in Salt Creek would cause significant permanent impairment. The court consequently enjoined the NPS from permitting motorized vehicle travel in Salt Creek Canyon above Peekaboo Spring.

Off-highway vehicle groups, intervenors in the case, appealed the district court ruling, and in August 2000 the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court decision and remanded it for further consideration. The circuit court ruled that the district court had applied the wrong standard in its interpretation of the Organic Act and should have more fully considered whether the agency's interpretation of the Act, as applied to Salt Creek, was "`based on a permissible construction of the statute." The circuit court determined that the administrative record was not clear concerning whether motorized travel in Salt Creek would cause permanent impairment to park resources. The circuit court agreed with the district court that the Organic Act prohibited the NPS from permitting "significant, permanent impairment." However, the circuit court noted that the Organic Act may also prohibit negative impacts that do not rise to the level of "significant, permanent impairment." The circuit court remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to re-examine the record to determine whether the agency's conclusion that there was no significant impact on Salt Creek Canyon from the decision to allow limited vehicular traffic in Salt Creek Canyon was adequately supported. The circuit court also instructed the district court to consider the new NPS Management Policies in regard to "impairment of park resources or values," the central issue in the case, and vacated the district court's injunction on motorized vehicle use in Salt Creek Canyon above Peekaboo Spring.

The environmental assessment analyzed four alternatives, including three alternatives which would have permitted vehicle access. Each of these three alternatives would have allowed vehicle travel on the Salt Creek trail under the permit system and daily vehicle limits of the 1995 Canyonlands/Orange Cliffs Backcountry Management Plan (BMP).  Alternative A would have allowed motor vehicle access on the current alignment of the trail year-round. Alternative B would have allowed vehicle access on the current alignment of the trail each year from October 1 until ice makes the creek impassable, or January 31 of the following year at the latest; vehicles would have been prohibited the remainder of the year. Alternative C would have realigned sections of the trail to avoid the streambed and riparian area where feasible, and would have allowed year-round vehicle access. The fourth alternative analyzed in the EA, Alternative D, would prohibit motor vehicle access in Middle Salt Creek Canyon year-round. Hiking and pack/saddle stock would continue to be permitted, under the provisions of the backcountry management plan.

Under each of the three vehicle alternatives, the use of motorized vehicles was found to cause impairment to park resources and values because of adverse impacts to the Salt Creek riparian/wetland ecosystem. Alternative D, prohibiting vehicle access, was found not to cause impairment to park resources and values. Consequently, Alternative D was selected for implementation.

Effective July 14, 2004, no vehicular traffic will be allowed to travel in Salt Creek Canyon beyond Peekaboo campsite.

For further information, please contact the park superintendent, Canyonlands National Park, 2282 SW Resource Boulevard, Moab, Utah 84532; Telephone: (435) 719-2101.

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