Reprinted with permission of the author
by Aaron Johnson
My wife Ellen and I first saw pictures of The Wave on SummitPost.org. It looked unreal, like it didn’t really exist. It was a movie set of an alien planet left out in the middle of the desert. Paul Klenke, a member of SummitPost.org had been to The Wave and fashioned a very informative page about the desert marvel. We were intrigued, but when we saw how difficult it was to visit The Wave, we put it on the back burner. Several years would pass before we got around to attempting a visit to The Wave.
During those passing years, I became a crusader against the fee scheme that is rapidly spreading across the United States. The Forest Service is the worst offender, breaking its own rules set forth in the Federal Lands Recreation and Enhancement Act (FLREA) repeatedly all over the nation. The FLREA is a revision of the highly controversial Fee Demo Project, which fell flat on its face when the public was opposed to being charged a fee to access nature. Misappropriation of funds was another legitimate concern. The FLREA was supposed to curb Fee Demo’s worst abuses, but has since come under fire in numerous locations. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the FS counterpart that manages lands the FS doesn’t. The BLM, which manages more acres of land than any Federal agency, has jumped on the fee bandwagon as well, and is the overseer of perhaps one of the biggest fee scams out there.
We’re members of an informal hiking group called The Usual Suspects. One of our fellow hikers in the group is Cheryl, and she is our most enthusiastic desert hiker. Cheryl and Ellen had decided in 2010 that it was time to visit The Wave. I opted not to have anything to do with the process because The Wave was under a fee system, although I admittedly watched with curiosity as Cheryl and Ellen attempted to obtain a permit.
Provided for our convenience, a web site was available to allow potential visitors to apply for a permit. Online applicants could pick three possible dates. You see, The Wave is protected. Only 20 people are permitted to visit The Wave each day. We would later learn we were competing against as many as 300 people per day, from around the world, for a permit to visit The Wave. At the time, online applications for permits were $5.00 per person. Cheryl applied for a permit for three people, and so did Ellen in the hope it would increase their chances at being awarded a permit. Applicants must wait three months before they know if they are awarded a permit. Ellen and Cheryl sent $30 to the BLM to “process their application.” The money was non-refundable.
They did not get a permit, and our $30 was gone, essentially easy cash in hand, money for nothing to the BLM. They tried two more times over the course of the year to get a permit and were never successful. The BLM pocketed $90. Let’s see…300 people per day times $5—that’s $1500 per day (a modest estimate during peak season). Processing involves a few clicks on the computer and turning a cage with numbered balls in it, less than a minute’s worth of activity per application. In our case, that’s $30 a minute. It’s obviously more for larger groups.
Despite my protestations for participation in the scam, Ellen and Cheryl were determined to visit The Wave. I admittedly wanted to see it too, but if I didn’t because of this ridiculous fee and lottery scam, so be it. The girls then had a friend report that he got in to see The Wave by showing up in person at the BLM office in Kanab, Utah, where the lottery is performed on a daily basis (Saturday, Sunday and Monday permits are issued on the Friday before). It was decided this would be the next strategy. I love hiking in Utah, so I was willing to go along because there were plenty of wonderful hiking options in the area in case we couldn’t get in to see The Wave. If we did get in, I could witness the fee scam in action. The trip was planned months in advance, for a non-peak period. Ellen and Cheryl proclaimed the first full week of March as Wave Week. We would arrive at the BLM office in Kanab at 8:45 SHARP (not a minute earlier, mind you) and participate in the lottery every morning until we got a permit, valid for the NEXT day. I agreed and I didn’t mind. I was going to be in Utah, and I would therefore be quite content, no matter what we ended up doing. My only concern was the time frame. I told Ellen and Cheryl I thought it was a bit too early in light of the weather, but they weren’t concerned, so I let it go. And that was the end of that…until the month of March finally rolled around.
ZION & OTHER DIVERSIONS
We arrived in Kanab under questionable skies. A series of potentially potent storms were going to rush through the area over the next few days. Weather forecasters though agreed with my own forecast that most of the storm’s impact would be in northern Utah, although wet conditions could hamper our abilities to reach some of the desired trailheads on the region’s dirt roads, which turn positively greasy after any moisture collects on them. Even the best SUVs can be made worthless in such conditions. It was decided not to apply for a Wave permit on the first day. In case we were awarded a permit, we would have to pay the fee and chance driving down the greasy House Rock road to the trailhead, perhaps getting stuck in poor weather. We knewthe weather would improve later in the week.
We opted for a hike up Valley 4, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), to visit a group of toadstool formations located amidst a wild, alien landscape. This location is becoming well known, thanks to the internet, and the route is well worn by previous visitors. It’s definitely worth the effort to see it, and for us, it was a good choice in light of the oncoming weather.
We attempted a round-about hike to the Wahweap Toadstools but we didn’t get there. The distance was greater than the amount of time we had available. We decided we might try the standard route up Wahweap Creek later in the week if conditions allowed.
We decided once again not to apply for a permit to see The Wave the next day because it was snowing or raining, and the road to the trailhead would be a mess the following day, despite the returning sun. We visited the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, a fascinating location on a high plateau northwest of Kanab, where numerous movies had been filmed.
With the weather worsening, we decided to spend the rest of the day at Zion, doing research for our eventual return to the famous National Park probably in the fall of 2012. We had a nice lunch in Springdale and Cheryl gave us a tour of the restaurants and lodging we should consider for our pending return.
One forecast called for 6 inches of snow in the Kanab area. I disagreed, I just didn’t see it happening. Most of the weather would stay north and I predicted Kanab would maybe get a sprinkle. Overnight, it did just that.
On Tuesday morning, we were at the Kanab BLM office vying for a permit to The Wave. A small crowd had convened in the help desk area of the cramped office building for the big event-the lottery drawing. I found myself feeling disgusted and stepped out. Cheryl and Ellen soon joined me at our rented Jeep Cherokee, a bit on a glum side. We were not awarded a permit. I was not surprised.
It was decided against my advice that we would attempt to get down the House Rock road and hike the Wire Pass Slot and maybe do some of Buckskin Gulch. Buckskin is the world’s longest slot canyon, and it’s reportedly a treat just to see a portion of it. Folks manage to walk the entire length of the slot to the Paria River drainage over a course of days, but Cheryl assured us it was worth it to see just a portion of the canyon. The BLM officer had warned there would be plenty of water in Buckskin to contend with from the storm that had passed through, which I was also not thrilled about. I like my desert hiking dry, and I didn’t want to pay the access fee at the trailhead kiosk for Wire Pass, and then again for The Wave, when we could see both under one fee later on.
Our trip down House Rock road was short lived. After three miles, it was so greasy it was hardly navigable. I took over the driving and backed the vehicle back up the road to drier terrain. We knew we had plenty of time later in the week and it was best to let the road dry out. We ended up hiking Valley 1 in the GSENM to a remote collection of toadstools located within another bizarre landscape.
The following morning found us once again back at the Kanab BLM office in the hopes of obtaining a permit to see The Wave. Familiar faces from the previous morning were also present. The convening crowd was larger on this day, including some foreigners and folks from all over the country, including Oregon and Pennsylvania. The odds seemed slim, and it was our last crack at it. The permit would be for tomorrow, our last day in the area. We figured with the passing of another day, the road would be drive-able and the weather would be optimal. I remained in the car to avoid the cramped quarters as these desperate people hovered over the cage of balls, waiting with bated breath for their ball to tumble in miraculous fashion out of the cage, thus granting them access to the magical, heavenly Wave.
The girls were gone longer than the previous day. Cheryl then returned with a smile. “We got the permit!” I kept my enthusiasm in check, but I was glad for Cheryl and Ellen, since seeing The Wave was the main goal of the trip for them. Ellen informed me our ball, lucky number one, was the first to tumble out of the ball cage. We would be seeing The Wave tomorrow! Our $7.00 per person fee was paid. This is the actual fee. The $5.00 fee applicants pay for an online application is a processing fee (read: racket). When they arrive to pick up their permit, they must pay another $7.00 per person for the permit.
One gentleman did not get a permit, and he announced he would be going to The Wave anyway. The BLM employee said something to the effect of, “you’re showing disrespect to all these good folks who are trying hard to follow the rules.” This remark mattered not a whit to the guy, and I could understand the man’s feelings on the matter. The whole thing is just wrong.
With that, we were off to Zion again to try hiking to Observation Point. We were thwarted quickly by an iced-over trail. One hiker slipped on the rock-hard glaze and actually fell to another switchback below. He was lucky he didn’t fall further, as much of the trail traverses extremely exposed cliffs. We opted for the Emerald Pools trail, which turned out to be an excellent choice. We made it to all of the pools, got some great photos and had a nice late lunch at a pizza place in Springdale.
VISITING THE WAVE
Not having to report to the Kanab BLM office in the hopes of receiving a permit for The Wave meant we could finally get an early start, and maybe get some nice early morning pictures. The road was sufficiently dried out and we made the drive without incident. Several cars at the large parking area indicated there were folks more ambitious than us already on their way to The Wave. The BLM supplies a detailed route description and a nice map to guide you to the reportedly obscure destination. Indeed, without prior information, The Wave would be a challenge to locate efficiently, as the actual attraction is very small.
The BLM route description was well written and the detailed map was spot-on. We hiked the distance to The Wave, 2.5 miles, in under an hour. The scenery along the way was impressive, to say the least.
Upon arrival at The Wave, you sense you are entering a blessed place set aside by the powers that created it. Despite all the hoopla on the internet, the fee scam and stories of desperate folks trying to see The Wave any way they can, one can’t help but be drawn up in the mysticism surrounding it. Once one has finally arrived and enters “the gates,” thus ending what for many has been a frustrating quest, the overwhelming sense of awe cannot be ignored.
The Wave is a photographer’s paradise, and will be a pleasure to photograph with any camera in any sort of light. Bad pictures of The Wave are rare, and even if they are bad, taken by the worst photographer alive, The Wave won’t fail to impress. It defies description, and even in a bad photo, viewers will gaze with wonder at nature’s inspired and miraculous handiwork.
We immediately hung a right and walked through a narrow slot illuminated by reflected light. The place was positively magical, uplifting, maybe even euphoric for my two ecstatic hiking partners. We dropped our packs off and immediately went scampering through the sandstone wonderland with cameras chattering. All told, we shot hundreds of photos.
We made it a point to visit Wave 2, another wonder not far to the west. We have an old, faded poster of formations in Wave 2 in our home, and Ellen longed to replace it with our own photo. We paused for some lunch at Wave 2, seeing no one else. We then explored the wonderful sandstone escarpment above The Waves, snapping more photos before returning to The Wave proper for another break and more photos.
Wire Pass is a fun little slot, quite narrow in spots and literally cool. On hot days it’s certainly a great spot to retreat to. Wire Pass empties rather undramatically into Buckskin Gulch, where hikers can choose to hike either up or down stream. All told, this was going to be an 11 mile day, so I chose to relax at the confluence while Ellen and Cheryl ventured down stream for a bit. Upon their return, we scampered back out of Wire Pass and headed for the car.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE VERY UGLY
Lots of folks don’t mind fees, they feel they’re necessary and even good. In some cases, this is true, such as State or National Parks. However, these attractions are under different management systems and they are held accountable for the management of their funds. Public lands are held hostage under the current and ongoing FLREA program, and this is a bad thing. The program is fraught with plenty of opportunity for inappropriate mismanagement of the moneys collected, with no accountability to the public at all. The agencies are going great guns on the privatization of our public lands, all in the name of profit, with no accountability, with no input from the public, charging folks to access land they should be able to access for free, because they are tax paying Americans. This is a very ugly thing.
So I began to wonder, under what circumstances did The Wave get mixed up in the fee system to begin with?
According to Kitty Benzar, President of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition:
It was made a fee area under Fee Demo in May 1997, when there were no restrictions on recreation fees. The game was wide open for fees anywhere and everywhere, no public notice or comment required, none sought. When FLREA with all its pesky restrictions and prohibitions happened, that put the BLM in a quandary. Follow the law? Or look for a way around it? Of course you know what they did. Since it’s backcountry (and in this case Wilderness), they couldn’t throw down a toilet here and a picnic table there to try and qualify for a Standard Amenity Fee. So, as in many other places, they jumped on the Special Recreation Permit section of FLREA. You may remember it reads (in its entirety):
“(h) Special Recreation Permit Fee- The Secretary may issue a special recreation permit, and charge a special recreation permit fee in connection with the issuance of the permit, for specialized recreation uses of Federal recreational lands and waters, such as group activities, recreation events, motorized recreational vehicle use.”
The weasel words are “such as” which have been interpreted to mean anything BLM wants them to, including entry to Wilderness. Would a reasonable person think that a few individuals hiking in backcountry constitutes “specialized recreation use”? I don’t think so, but the clause is arguably ambiguous, and we’ve seen how the courts bend over backwards to defer to agency interpretation even of parts that are NOT ambiguous at all, so it’s never been tested. Also there’s never been a great test case on the criminal side. If I ever hear of one, we will try and pursue it.
THE WAVE: WHAT DOES YOUR FEE BUY YOU?
Under the FLREA, a Standard Amenity Fee Area must have six amenities: Interpretive signage, parking, permanent toilet facility, trash receptacles, picnic tables & security or patrol measures. Several of these are missing at the Wire Pass Trailhead. However, remember that this area is under a SPECIAL USE PERMIT, which conveniently does not require any amenities, even though folks must pay more to see The Wave. To the BLM’s credit, an excellent map and route description are provided, but it’s more likely to assure efficient visits to The Wave than to provide value in return for fee paid. By not getting off track and getting people to the Wave faster, impacts on the landscape are minimized. It probably saves the BLM lots of trouble. Guiding lost and disoriented visitors not accustomed to desert hiking conditions to The Wave or back out of the area could be a constant and costly headache. The map is a minor investment that maximizes the incoming fees.
The rules for SRPs are quite murky. That’s why the BLM likes them.
The Wave is in The Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area. People accessing a wilderness area and not using any amenities shouldn’t be charged a fee. To get around that, the murky “Special Recreation Permit Fee” was applied, even though hiking in a wilderness area can hardly be termed a “specialized use.” Getting around it is one thing, but that doesn’t make it right. The area contains no developed facilities, and as a designated wilderness never will, yet the BLM continues to collect money under the FLREA. The online application system is a racket, a lucrative money making scheme. Where is all that money going?
Me, I’m with the locals. Just go and take my chances. I haven’t heard of any heavy-handed enforcement. I think the BLM staff is too busy back at the office counting the money to get out and patrol the land.
Concerns about potentially crowded conditions at The Wave are justified. The Wave is very small, and as attractions go on a spectacular level, The Wave itself can’t compare to the majesty of other desert areas in Utah and Arizona. Its tinyness works against it, and all impact would be directly on The Wave and the immediate surroundings.
I have NOTHING against a system of limited permits! In Grand Canyon, where I have hiked hundreds of miles from an early age and guided professionally, they went to a limited-permit and “zoning” system in the late ’70s to protect both the area and the experience. You had to apply well in advance, and when the permits for the trip you wanted to do were gone they were gone. There was excellent compliance because the system assured that you would have to share your designated area with only a limited and appropriate number of other people so everyone would have a good experience. It was a win/win for both the Canyon and the hikers. The permits were FREE. Then under Fee Demo Grand Canyon started charging money for backcountry permits. Totally different situation. Now it is a commercial transaction. The agency has an incentive to allow as many people as possible to get permits – perhaps more than is good for the resource – because they get to keep the money. They also have an incentive to issue permits for itineraries that are not safe – because they get to keep the money. People are paying money and they expect access in return; they paid for it after all. Some people I’m sure are camping in the inner Canyon without a permit, taking their chances, to save money. That means some “zones” are hosting more campers than they can support, and the experience of permitted campers is negatively impacted by crowding. The whole system has broken down. It’s just not that expensive to administer a fair and equitable permit system, and the FS/BLM receive adequate appropriated funding to do that administration. People should all have to abide by whatever the permit rules are, but money should not determine who gets a permit and who doesn’t. It’s just plain un-American to sell access to public lands to the highest bidder. I am reminded of the Bible story of the moneychangers in the temple. Shame on the BLM for what they put you through and what it cost you!
For some, a limited permit system is inadequate in protecting a treasure like The Wave, and dealing with a necessary evil such as the FLREA system is a price to be paid for that protection, regardless of the accountability.
I disagree that a permit fee is a “necessary evil.” The evil part is right, but it should never be necessary. By using money as a management tool to reduce use, there is constant upward pressure until only the rich few can visit.
People have grown tired of the government and its many agencies not being held accountable and spiraling out of fiscal control. If a fee system is determined to be the answer, how about making the entire Coyote Buttes area a National Monument or Park, which would place the Wave under a system with some degree of accountability and give it and the surrounding Vermilion Cliffs region (equally impressive and complementary to The Wave) the protection it deserves?
God forbid. Make it a National Park or Monument and the bus tours and snack bars and paved roads won’t be far behind. In fact, I think it was better protected before it was declared a Wilderness Area. Sometimes these special designations are just a way of painting targets on the land because they attract more visitors.
It may be a slippery slope to charge fees to access public land, but in my mind the most important issue concerning The Wave is preservation and protection of the area. The issue of whether fees are proper or improper seems almost inconsequential. Some fragile lands may need a gatekeeper and that’s going to cost extra money. While I think the BLM should account for how the permit/lottery revenue is being spent, it does seem that they are trying to control the impact of a constant stream of visitors on a remote wilderness area. I would never propose to spotlight The Wave or the surrounding area by making it part of the Parks System. I think the battle should be focused on blatantly inappropriate fees, such as the Forest Service charging fees to drive on a Colorado State Highway (Mt. Evans).
Until The Wave and all other public lands are free from the racket of the FLREA, which is nothing more than a commercial take-over and privatization of our public lands, this double taxing of American citizens will continue. If The Wave deserves extra protection, it needs to be done properly, with accountability, and with the blessing of the people, under a proper system. Until then, it’s just a cash cow for the BLM.
It is said the best things in life are free. Everyone knows this is not always the case, and in the case of the FLREA, this is certainly not the truth. Under proper management, The Wave would indeed be qualified for this statement. Under the corporate greed-driven FLREA, despite its awesome beauty and wonder, The Wave is neither.