New Friends Group Working to Support Arches, Canyonlands National Parks

Among the initiatives Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks has under way is a site stewardship program designed to detect deterioration of archaeological sites in the parks. Photo from Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks.

The roster of national park "friends groups" has grown with the relatively recent arrival of the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks: The Bates Wilson Legacy Fund, an organization working to support projects within those two red-rock gems of the National Park System.

Though the organization technically has been around for three years, it held its "coming out" party earlier this month in Moab, Utah.

“We’re really getting our feet off the ground and moving foward," says Joette Langianese, the group's executive director.

Bates Wilson was superintendent of Arches National Park (which was a national monument initially) from 1949-1972, and lobbied to see Canyonlands National Park created. When that vision came to be in September 1964, Mr. Wilson became Canyonlands' first superintendent.

The drive and vision that Superintendent Bates brought to the two parks became the mission statement of the friends group, which strives to "promote the legacy of Bates Wilson by inspiring stewardship of the natural and cultural treasures, and enriching the visitor experience in the national parks of Southeast Utah."

One of the first initiatives the group has taken on is creation of a "site stewardship team" of volunteers to check on the condition of archaeological sites in the two parks.

“We’re not as highly trained as, of course, the (parks') cultural resource staff, but we are the eyes and the ears. We’re the extra boots on the ground to help make sure that when we start noticing any problems in a timely manner, the parks hear about it," said Ms. Langianese. "Some of the sites haven't been visited by a cultural resource staff person in five years.

"We went to a site in Needles (District) that hadn't been checked by archaeology staff since 2005. Rangers go out there, but they don’t formally document things," she said. "And some sites they haven’t been to in a long time. ... Our focus right now is on the ones that have the potential for higher impacts, as opposed to the ones that are a little bit more remote."

That's not to say the organization isn't concerned about the more remote sites. Indeed, "we’re very concerned about the remote ones, because of the Internet age, the blog age, the GPS age," said Ms. Langianese. "All of a sudden, sites that have had very few visitors are getting visited more often.”

The stewardship program is still in its fledgling stages, with just six individuals involved at this point. However, Ms. Langianese expects the program to grow rapidly as it evolves and gains more attention.

“The stewards take their jobs really seriously. I’ve been out with them. They get in their mode and they really enjoy being able to give back to the park that way," she said. "This is our program. We started it in the fall, and we anticipate that it’s going to grow quite quickly and we have to be quite careful. We don’t want to overwhelm ourselves.”

Folks who want to join the program need to complete an application, and also sign a confidentiality agreement that they won't reveal site locations.

"They tell one person and they tell another person and they tell another person ... the next thing you know everybody knows about a place," Ms. Langianese said. "So we’re really restrictive. You can’t bring anybody but your spouse to a site, or another site steward. ... We’re pretty restrictive about it."

Also key to the program's success is Park Service follow-up, she said.

"The most important part is that the Park Service follows up if there’s a problem that (site stewards have) identified, so that they know that what they're doing is important," the executive director said.