Updated November 24, 2021 - 12:57 pm
Outdoor enthusiasts fear a federal proposal intended to improve Calico Basin will have the opposite effect and hamper access to the popular and free recreation area in the mountains just west of Las Vegas.
The Bureau of Land Management is seeking to adopt a new long-term plan to accommodate current and expected future demand at the basin while protecting the more than 5,000 acre site’s natural and cultural resources.
Calico Basin, located on an eastern edge of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, offers hiking, climbing and other recreational activities. Visitation has grown since the early 2000s along with the valley’s population.
The proposed blueprint, known as the Recreation Area Management Plan and Draft Environmental Assessment, calls for charging a $20 entry fee and evaluating the use of an online reservation system to allow the agency to control visitation.
The changes would be consistent with how the BLM manages Red Rock Canyon’s scenic loop, including maintaining the same hours of operation, which vary depending on the time of year. Paid entry into the scenic loop would get visitors into Calico Basin, and vice versa, but patrons could not reserve entry into both areas for the exact same time.
It is a strategy that would supersede a plan signed in 2003 that officials say is no longer adequate.
During a virtual hearing to address the proposal on Nov. 18, Josh Travers, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Red Rock Canyon and Sloan office, assured dozens of participants that “we’re not putting in a system that restricts access.”
The opposition was unconvinced.
“It just further disincentivizes lower-income folks from using it and we see a lot of that,” said Gabriel Lewis, a local climber and climate change scientist. “It’s not just rich, white people climbing in Vegas, which is one of the nicest things.”
Matter of finances
In its draft plan, the BLM says 100 percent of fees would be reinvested in maintaining and improving the basin and that controlling crowds at the site will help keep it sustainable.
Additional revenue would be directed toward increasing law enforcement and patrols, new programming, more signs and renovated facilities, the plan shows.
Without fees to supplement existing recreation funds, and if a reservation system is not put into place, there will not be enough money to monitor and protect the land’s resources based on expected growth, according to the agency.
Yearly visitation at the recreation area has more than quadrupled since 2003 to roughly 700,000 people in 2019, according to the BLM. The agency estimates that annual attendance will reach a million people by 2024 as the population continues to surge in the valley.
“We have to implement a system that allows us to not only collect fees but, also as a priority that we’ve identified in this plan, to manage for the safety of all the visitors that go to Calico Basin,” Travers said.
Among other concerns, critics have argued that gates could cause crowd issues, operating hours would spell the end of summertime bouldering since climbers often choose to partake in the activity during cooler evenings, and the proposed changes were too drastic.
“What we should be focusing on, instead of building structures and gates to keep people out, is educating the public on how to be better stewards of the land,” said Bryan Friesen, a climber and board member of Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition.
Some outdoor enthusiasts who participated in the meeting suggested a paid parking system as a more reasonable approach. Others sought expanded access for users who frequented the park or engaged in volunteerism.
John Hegyes, a longtime rock climber in the Red Rock Canyon conservation area, said that toll booths would appear to create a gated community for private homeowners on Calico Basin, resulting in taxpayers bankrolling a private benefit.
Nearly all of Calico Basin is federal land except for roughly 210 acres, where nearly 40 homes are built.
He wanted more details on how residents would be allowed to bypass vehicle lines. Travers said that specifics would be part of the plan implementation phase once the direction is finalized.
By Wednesday morning, a Change.org petition to keep Calico Basin free and open all hours had garnered more than 1,800 signatures. A separate petition to legitimize mountain bicycle trails, which have been built but are unauthorized and will remain unpermitted under the BLM’s plan, had received more than 1,900 signatures.
Travers said that it is a challenge to allow multi-use recreation in an area so highly visited and that mountain bicycling requires a large network of trails. Existing trails created by users, he said, had not gone through the agency’s process, which examines effects to natural and cultural resources.
Equestrian activity will continue to be allowed, he said.
In an interview, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who represents Calico Basin, said that he understood both sides.
“We’ve got to strike that balance between access and (addressing) overuse or destruction of the resources that we do have,” he said.
As an avid cyclist who began mountain biking during the pandemic, Jones said he did not believe mountain bicyclists should have unfettered access to ride anywhere, noting that there were other trails in Red Rock Canyon to use.
“I think it remains to be seen whether Calico Basin, specifically, is the best place for mountain biking to occur,” he said.
But he also said he wanted to examine the issue more closely as well as other concerns that had been raised by outdoor enthusiasts, including those who have reached out to him.
Public encouraged to weigh in
The BLM began the process on its proposed management plan a year ago, started public outreach early this year and kicked off a 30-day public comment period on Nov. 8. The agency will continue to accept public comment on the plan by email or regular mail until Dec. 8.
To provide a comment, send an email or submit comments by regular mail to BLM – Red Rock/Sloan Field Office, Attn: Calico Basin RAMP, 1000 Scenic Loop Drive, Las Vegas NV 89161.
For more information, visit the BLM’s website at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2016281/510