BLM Encouraging More Reasonable Group Sizes in Birch Hollow

The long drop in Birch Hollow

We recently received a letter from Tom Christensen, Outdoor Rec. Planner with Kane Co. BLM, detailing some great educational and monitoring initiatives to help with the crowding problems that have been worsening in Birch Hollow. Birch has become hugely popular over the last five years, mainly because:

• It is a classic slot canyon (unlike many un-notable hollows and draws in the area).
• It is fairly short, making it an easy day trip (unlike Fat Man’s).
• It is easy and straightforward (unlike Englestead Hollow).
• It is almost always dry (though it can be quite muddy).
• And, most influentially, it does not require a Zion National Park permit.

Because Birch Hollow doesn’t require a Park permit, it becomes a strong candidate for anyone who fails, for one reason or another, to score a canyon permit on a given day. More important, since large groups cannot get permits for any canyon in Zion National Park (some canyons max out at 12, while groups size is limited to 6 or 8 for others), ALL the big groups go to Birch Hollow. Boy Scouts troops may by the most infamous examples of big groups in Birch Hollow, but there are certainly other large groups (from 10 – 25 people) who use Birch for large, social canyon descents. Imagine descending Birch Hollow with a friend, minding your business, when you run into a group of 20 people… Yikes!

While I love the idea of so many people getting out into the canyons, it doesn’t take much canyoneering experience to understand large groups of people can create really difficult logistics problems in canyons, let alone the audible and physical impact a large group has on the landscape, animals, and other canyoneers. So I’m happy to hear the BLM is initiating a campaign in hopes of improving the Birch situation. The BLM approach is two-pronged:

1. Informational kiosks at the trailhead and the wilderness boundary will provide information on Tread Lightly, LNT, and canyoneering etiquette. I understand this includes guidelines suggesting folks limit their party to 12 people or less.
2. A trailhead register will request folks sign in before they make their canyon descent. Not only will this help the BLM monitor use, but it will alert parties descending the canyon about how many other groups might be in the canyon, ahead of them, on a given day. Guide services (like us) will participate, in addition to the general public.

It’s difficult to predict how much these passive education techniques will change large group behavior in Birch, especially since the groups don’t run into the educational kiosks until they arrive to descend the canyon. But what other non-invasive solution does the BLM have? It certainly doesn’t have the manpower to have rangers out daily.

I’m hoping the signage and changes will effectively communicate to folks that the BLM IS paying attention, and if things don’t change, access could become more difficult via permitting, group size restrictions, etc. If descending Birch Hollow becomes as difficult as visiting Buckskin Gulch, that would certainly reduce traffic a great deal… probably for the canyon’s benefit.

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About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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