Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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For the love of Red Rock

As interest in the conservation area grows, officials balance challenges, preservation and plans for the future

Red Rock

Wade Vandervort

The sun rises over Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on July 2.

Stephanie Forte moved from Aspen, Colorado, to the Las Vegas Valley in 1998, specifically to be closer to one of the world’s premier rock-climbing destinations.

A professional rock climber at the time, Forte visited Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area up to five times a week in the years following her move to Southern Nevada. But she was somewhat of an anomaly.

Safety tips when visiting Red Rock in the summer

Although Red Rock Canyon is welcoming more and more visitors each year, visitation remains low during the summer months. Those who do visit should be aware of the risks associated with hiking, climbing and mountain biking in very high temperatures, said Bureau of Land Management public affairs specialist John Asselin. Most parts of the canyon lack cellphone service, so it’s important that visitors prepare prior to their visit by bringing at least a gallon of water, even if that may seem excessive. “Long sleeves and long pants—when it’s over 100 degrees, that’s what you want,” Asselin added. “Because that sun will just bake you, and you’ll end up receiving more heat than you’re releasing. Visitors should also note that the BLM does not employ staff or volunteers to go out into the trails if someone is lost. “People call it a park, but it’s not really a park,” Asselin said. “It’s a national conservation area that has recreation in it. So you really have to take care of yourself out there.”

“I’d ask my coworkers, ‘How often do you go to Red Rock?’ ” Forte said. “And they’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve never been.’ ”

A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Clark County’s population has nearly doubled, with a chunk of the corresponding growth in development occurring in the northwest portion of the Valley, near the borders of the conservation area.

Red Rock Canyon is also no longer a well-kept secret among hardcore climbers. Since the Great Recession, the conservation area has reported an uptick in visitors year over year, with attendance in 2018 reaching an all-time high of 3 million people, said John Asselin, public affairs specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s really popular,” Asselin said. “It’s right on the edge of Las Vegas. Las Vegas has grown right on the edge of the boundary.”

An increase in visitation is just one growing pain facing Red Rock nearly 30 years after Congress established it as Nevada’s first national conservation area. Activists and longtime visitors warn that the rural character of the area is being threatened by a looming development proposal to build thousands of homes overlooking the canyon. Activists are also continuing a quest to bring a bike path to the canyon’s heavily trafficked scenic loop drive, but federal and local funding remains a roadblock to this long-sought dream.

Even if you’re not a big hiker or cyclist, there are plenty of reasons to care about the future of Red Rock.

Las Vegas has always been known as a gambling destination, but these days, nearly one in five visitors report visiting or planning to visit a nearby outdoor destination during their stay, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Neither the BLM nor the LVCVA monitors the exact economic effects of visitation to Red Rock specifically. But if our neighbor to the east is any indication, the effects could be significant: In 2018, the National Park Service reported 15.1 million people visited national parks in Utah, spending an estimated $1.2 billion and supporting 18,700 jobs in the process.

Here in Southern Nevada, at least one thing is clear: Red Rock means something to locals and tourists alike. And while major alterations of the conservation area are unlikely, given that it is federally protected, we might see some changes at the nation’s most popular national conservation area in the years to come.

Click to enlarge photo

Ryan Deegan rock climbs at Red Rock Canyon in 2018.

More people, more problems?

Red Rock is far from the only natural area to see an increase in visitation. The National Park Service has reported more visitors than ever the past few years, especially at sites such as Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Still, Red Rock’s popularity is noteworthy. Of the BLM’s 17 conservation areas nationwide, Red Rock is the most visited. Perhaps in part because of its proximity to a major metropolitan area, the conservation area saw more visitors in 2018 than Joshua Tree and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

“We don’t know when [the growth] is going to stop,” Asselin said.

While the increased appreciation for Red Rock presents opportunities for the Las Vegas Valley, it is also forcing the BLM to rethink how it manages the 197,000-acre conservation area—a designation distinct from national parks, with an emphasis on land protection and stewardship in addition to recreation.

In 2017, the BLM built 200 new parking spots along Red Rock Canyon’s scenic loop drive, Asselin said. That helped with overcrowding for a time, but now, on almost any spring weekend and on popular weekends such as those following Thanksgiving or Christmas, the scenic loop once again reaches parking capacity during peak hours, he noted.

What is a National Conservation Area?

Congressionally designated and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, national conservation areas are part of the BLM’s national landscape conservation system. The goal of the larger system is to “conserve, protect and restore the exceptional scientific, recreational, cultural, historical and ecological values” for which these lands were protected. These are found almost exclusively in the West; there are 17 national conservation areas nationwide, including three in Nevada.

“It was always the situation where Thanksgiving weekend was the time when local climbers took off. You didn’t go climbing the day after Thanksgiving because you knew there was going to be a lot of people,” Forte said. “But those types of crowds can exist in the winter now and into the spring.”

Although most visitors are respectful stewards of the land, growing crowds can bring more trash and pose difficulties for climbers, Forte said, in addition to creating parking challenges. It is now common for the BLM to temporarily close the vehicle entrance to the canyon’s scenic loop on busy days, which was rarely necessary just a few years ago, Asselin said.

The BLM isn’t keen on turning people away and tries to avoid doing so, encouraging visitors to instead arrive outside peak hours.

“What we’re really trying to do is get that message out that the time to come during nice-weather weekends and holidays is as early as you can get there,” Asselin said. “The gate is open at 6 a.m.”

What is a National Park?

The United States’ 61 national parks are managed by the National Park Service, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. These parks are typically protected from development because of their scenic and recreational significance, in addition to scientific importance. Yellowstone was the first federally protected park, established in 1872, even though the National Park Service wasn’t officially formed until 1916. Additions to the system are usually made through congressional acts. Nevada has two national parks: Death Valley and Great Basin.

Higher visitation brings challenges, builds stewards

The growing popularity of Red Rock is largely a positive phenomenon with potentially important political impacts, says Pauline van Betten, executive director of the advocacy group Save Red Rock.

Save Red Rock has existed in some capacity for more than a decade, but its membership and influence have recently grown, partially in response to development threats near the canyon. The most controversial, ongoing threat comes from Gypsum Resources, a company trying to build at least 3,000 homes in unincorporated Blue Diamond on the top of Blue Diamond Hill, just east of the conservation area.

That project stalled in April, when the Clark County Commission voted that Gypsum would need to obtain permission from the BLM to build a road leading to the proposed site. So far, the BLM hasn’t received a right-of-way application for a road from the developer, Asselin said.

Because Gypsum’s proposed development would be visible from parts of the canyon, including the scenic loop, Save Red Rock has long opposed the project, arguing that it would destroy the rural character of the conservation area.

Red Rock Canyon

The Spring Mountains are seen during sunrise at Red Rock Canyon Tuesday, July 2, 2019. Launch slideshow »

The fight against Gypsum has been grueling, but Save Red Rock has found strength in its growing numbers. The group’s online petition against the development has garnered more than 50,000 signatures. Opposition statements at County Commission meetings have lasted for hours over the years, van Betten said.

“[Red Rock] really touches people in a way that’s so intangible. You can’t really say why people [would] take off work for seven hours just so they can stand up and say to elected officials to just please preserve this natural area,” van Betten said.

Locals may be the ones most immediately affected by Red Rock, but visits to Red Rock from national and international tourists are significant as well, said Andy Hart, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy. The nonprofit conservancy, which works with and supports the BLM in its management of Red Rock, is responsible for collecting fees at the scenic loop entrance and running the conservation area’s gift shop, so its staff and volunteers get a firsthand look at who’s visiting the land.

Hart suggested that tourism to Red Rock could become more important for Las Vegas in the years ahead, considering that younger people are less likely to gamble in general.

Friends of Red Rock Canyon

If you’re interested in volunteering to help keep Red Rock pristine, contact Friends of Red Rock Canyon.

This organization offers a variety of volunteer opportunities with flexible hours. You can help clean up trails, man the information desk at the visitors center, document Native American cultural sites or take care of the area’s nine desert tortoises. Email [email protected] or call 702-515-5360.

“We do see opportunity in more visitors coming,” Hart said. “That’s more people we can introduce to this beautiful place, and more people we can introduce to their public lands and that concept of public land.”

Erin McDermott, executive director of Friends of Red Rock Canyon, sees another upside to the influx: a growing understanding of the need to keep it pristine. One of the primary goals of the nonprofit Friends of Red Rock Canyon is to preserve the conservation area through volunteer programs such as trail cleanups.

“The excitement around Red Rock [of] people who want to come and visit the canyon … is the same energy that fuels our robust volunteer program, because people love the canyon so much,” McDermott said.

With more visitation along the canyon’s trails, graffiti and trash have become more common, McDermott said. But the organization faces no shortage of volunteers to address those issues, including old and newer residents and even out-of-towners, she said.

“As the city is promoted and public lands are promoted, we’re definitely seeing an interest from people of all walks of life,” McDermott said. “Even international and national visitors say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be out in Vegas for two weeks. Can I volunteer?’ ”

Save Red Rock

Established more than a decade ago to promote safety in the conservation area following the death of a cyclist, Save Red Rock has grown into a registered nonprofit with more than 60,000 supporters, said Pauline van Betten, executive director of Save Red Rock. The group’s mission is to preserve and enrich the conservation area for recreational, educational and environmental purposes. It is currently focused on the following campaigns:

1. Keep Red Rock Rural: The organization opposes proposed developments that would encroach on the conservation area. Even though all of Red Rock is federally protected from development, the surrounding areas are not, and the BLM is not able to stop development that could affect views from within the canyon. The most notable proposal that Save Red Rock opposes would build thousands of homes in Blue Diamond overlooking the canyon. The Clark County Commission stalled that project in April.

2. Save Lovell Canyon: When the Center for Biological Diversity discovered unsafe lead concentrations in the soil of nearby Lovell Canyon this spring, Save Red Rock announced it would take on a campaign to clean up and protect the Spring Mountains canyon adjacent to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. In parts of the canyon, lead levels are more than 30 times what is considered safe for humans. The Center for Biological Diversity believes that unauthorized shooting in the area with lead-based bullets is to blame. Save Red Rock, the U.S. Forest Service and the Clark County Commission hope to find solutions to the problem soon.

3. Build a bike path at Red Rock: For years, Save Red Rock has been trying to bring a bike path to the canyon’s scenic loop. A bike path would improve safety and accessibility for cyclists and encourage diverse forms of transportation to and from Red Rock, thereby reducing vehicular traffic, the nonprofit says. The organization has support from the BLM, Clark County and other local groups, but lacks funding. One potential funding source is grant money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act. But the LWCF remains unfunded at this time, so Save Red Rock is waiting for and urging Congress to reauthorize funding for the federal program.

4. Disperse and diversify recreation: Save Red Rock is advocating for a number of changes at the conservation area in response to growing visitation rates along the scenic loop road. One idea is to bring a shuttle bus to the scenic loop, which visitors could ride after parking their cars at a designated spot near the entrance. Another is to expand trail access in other parts of the conservation area and build a second campground, as the existing one is often at capacity, organization members say. The BLM is considering ways to address high crowds at Red Rock and composing a visitation plan, but it has no official plans for a shuttle bus or additional campground.

Lovell Canyon

The sun rises over Lovell Canyon Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Launch slideshow »

Preserve and promote: A balancing act

The BLM is considering a variety of solutions to address the upswing in visitation, some of which were laid out in a capacity study conducted by the Reno-based environmental group Great Basin Institute in partnership with the Southern Nevada Conservancy.

The study’s results are not yet publicly available, but an executive summary recommends that the BLM establish a plan to manage and monitor visitation. That’s something the BLM is starting to work on, Asselin said.

But as a federal agency, large-scale projects and changes can take time. One change that could come more quickly is better cellphone service to assist those coming to the park via rideshare apps, Asselin said.

Another idea suggested by some activists is to promote areas of the park other than the scenic loop, which itself represents a fraction of the entire conservation area. Asselin said the BLM might expand parking lots in some of the less trafficked parts of the land.

“I think there’s opportunities for other areas within Red Rock Canyon outside the loop to allow people to get in there and go enjoy the beauty, without going the 13 miles that is the loop,” said County Commissioner Justin Jones, who previously worked as an attorney for Save Red Rock.

In a similar vein, Save Red Rock is trying to promote visitation to other regional recreational areas, such as Lovell Canyon, located in the Spring Mountains west of Red Rock.

The organization recently announced a new campaign called Save Lovell Canyon in response to lead detected in the canyon’s soil, suspected to be introduced through the common but unlawful practice of target shooting (lead-based bullets that seep into the soil have increased lead concentrations to more than 30 times above safe levels, Save Red Rock reported in May).

“We’re going to have to do some cleanup,” said Heather Fisher, president of Save Red Rock.

While the Save Lovell Canyon campaign focuses on the far-reaching consequences of unauthorized target shooting in natural areas, it also aims to raise awareness about Lovell Canyon’s existence in an effort to diversify recreation opportunities and keep Red Rock visitation at sustainable levels.

Another proposed solution would be to establish a shuttle bus along the scenic loop, similar to the shuttle service provided at Zion National Park. But that could be costly and would require dramatically expanding parking at or near the visitor center, so the BLM has no immediate plans, Asselin said.

What all these potential solutions have in common is that they could reduce vehicular traffic on the scenic loop, the root of overcapacity problems.

“We don’t have too many people in the canyon. We have too many cars,” van Betten said.

Building a bike path around the entire loop trail to ostensibly encourage multiuse transit into the conservation area and improve safety for cyclists is an ideal way to reduce car traffic, advocates from Save Red Rock say.

As part of its bike path proposal, the organization envisions park-and-ride centers on both ends of the scenic loop, at which drivers could park their cars and hop on their bikes, Fisher said. The path itself could include shade benches and imagery from local artists, Fisher added.

Spanning an estimated 50 miles and extending into Summerlin, the proposed bike path would cost tens of millions of dollars at least, Fisher said. Funding is an obvious hurdle, although Save Red Rock anticipates that it could receive some grant funding, potentially from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.

“But every time a grant comes, we need a matching fund from a local [source],” Fisher said.

Red Rock visitation, year by year

1999: 1,127,500

2000: 1,153,500

2001: 765,000

2002: 1,135,800

2003: 1,240,600

2004: 880,100

2005: 845,100

2006: 866,200

2007: 837,200

2008: 748,400

2009: 901,000

2010: 1,066,600

2011: 1,115,300

2012: 1,022,200

2013: 2,705,700

2014: 1,753,300

2015: 2,420,700

2016: 2,221,100

2017: 2,137,600

2018: 3,040,300

Local entities have expressed support for the path, including the BLM, the Regional Transportation Commission, the Nevada Department of Transportation and Clark County, Fisher and van Betten said. But Save Red Rock would likely need financial support from private organizations, too, such as casino companies.

“That would be really nice to get that community support, and it would show that they care about quality of life here,” Fisher said.

In her eyes, quality of life in Las Vegas in general is intrinsically connected to Red Rock. In order for the city to continue to grow and thrive, she believes, the region must promote activities and industries other than just casinos.

“We can’t tout ourselves as a quality of life area if we don’t also have quality of life values like [parks] and sports and other things that will attract the newer generation,” she said. “But how you do that without ruining the quality that’s drawing that? … It becomes a big question of management.”

Although there is disagreement and uncertainty about what management of Red Rock will look like moving forward, Forte emphasized that all relevant parties have the best interest of the area in mind.

“Everyone is trying to come together to find a solution,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll find one, because Red Rock is really a special place, and you don’t want to discourage anyone from going out and experiencing it.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.