ST. GEORGE — On a patch of land in northwest Arizona that has narrowly avoided several recent fires, the Virgin River Canyon Recreation Area has remained quiet and depopulated for over two years while undergoing significant renovations.
The Bureau of Land Management Arizona Strip District closed the site’s campground and parking areas on April 8, 2019. Public Affairs Specialist Rachel Carnahan said the closure helped ensure health and safety while the agency addressed the site’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“So far, the BLM has spent approximately $1.4 million on upgrades to electrical and water systems, renovation of restroom facilities, repaving the road and parking areas and demolishing a condemned administrative site,” Carnahan said. “In addition, BLM staff have completed many other improvements such as refinishing picnic tables, replacing signage, and improving trails.”
The Virgin River Canyon Recreation Area is located just off the Cedar Pocket Exit of I-15 in the Virgin River Gorge, approximately halfway between St. George and Mesquite. It contains 77 overnight campsites and 38 day use sites, including picnic tables, shade shelters, grills, raised tent pads and parking.
With much of the proposed development and many of the repairs completed, the BLM has announced plans to reinstate a 14-day stay limit at the site. The updated rule would replace a 1994 exemption from the standard stay limits, making the area’s camping limit consistent with other sites managed by the Arizona Strip District.
According to a press release announcing the proposed rule and inviting public comment, some visitors had used the site as a long-term residence. The site was not set up for long-term use, which resulted in sanitation issues, and it prevented more visitors from enjoying the area, per the release.
“Reinstating a 14-day stay limit would allow the BLM to enforce regulations pertaining to unlawful occupancy on public lands, increase recreational access to a larger number of users, and reduce damages to natural resources,” Carnahan said. “The rule, if approved, would have no impact on current users as the site has been closed since April 2019 for necessary renovations.”
The public comment period remains open, and the BLM plans to continue gathering information and suggestions pertaining to the proposed rule until August 16. An environmental assessment and public notices submitted by the BLM are available for review online.
Comments can be submitted by mail to the BLM, Arizona Strip Field Office (Attention: Amanda Sparks, 345 East Riverside Drive, St George, AZ 84790) or by email. Comments submitted are treated as public record and will be shared with the public.
After Aug. 16, the BLM will review the comments received and publish a final rule in the Federal Register (the official journal of government agency rules). Carnahan said the publication date is not fixed at this time, but the final rule will address relevant comments and explain how issues raised by those comments were resolved.
Carnahan said the Arizona Strip Field Office is hoping to reopen the site by the end of the year and the area’s reopening would be announced on their website and social media.
She said that the field office will be updating its business plan for the area, which includes planning future projects and evaluating the fee structure relative to operating costs.
“No fee increase is proposed at this time,” she said. “Fees at the site were established in 1997 and have remained unchanged for the past 24 years, which has provided insufficient funds for items such as facility repair and maintenance, and visitor information.”
Prior to the area’s closure, the fee for overnight-use was $8 per site (up to two vehicles) and the day-use fee was $2 per vehicle. While the campground at the Virgin River Canyon Recreation Area remains closed to motorized access and camping, access on foot is not prohibited, although restroom facilities and water are not available.
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