The Plan to Save an Iconic Natural Monument By Covering It in Plastic

A wild desire to preserve one of Utah’s most famous natural monuments almost destroyed it.

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Jan 20 2018, 5:00pm

Image: Prentice Bjerkeseth/Motherboard

Arches National Park is located just outside of Moab in the barren, red rock wilds of southern Utah. This national park is home to over 2,000 natural arches that have been eroded from fin-shaped sandstone formations over the course of millennia. The most famous of these arches is the 60-foot tall Delicate Arch that overlooks a basin in the park and attracts nearly 1.5 million visitors per year.

As its name suggests, Delicate Arch is fragile and park rangers go to great lengths to ensure that park visitors don’t damage it. But despite their best efforts, the same natural forces that created Delicate Arch will one day reclaim it, just like they reclaimed the neighboring Wall Arch, which collapsed in 2008.

Given the arch’s beauty and importance for driving visitors to the national park, it’s no surprise that the National Park Service would want to stave off its collapse for as long as possible. Indeed, the desire to preserve one of America’s most recognized natural landmarks resulted in a one of the outlandish preservation schemes ever dreamt up by Park Rangers: They wanted to coat Delicate Arch in plastic.

The plan began in 1947 after a Utah park custodian named Russ Mahan found himself dismayed by the eroded condition of one of the arch’s legs. Fearing that the collapse of the arch was imminent, Mahan wrote to his supervisor who passed his concerns on to the national parks director in Washington. This set in motion a seven-year effort to devise a means of stabilizing the arch.

Mahan was worried about erosion to Delicate Arch’s left leg in this photo. Image: Kennethhung/Wikimedia Commons

This wild scheme would have probably been lost to history had it not been for Arches park ranger Jim Stiles. After reading Desert Solitaire, one of Edward Abbey’s many homages to his time in the American Southwest, Stiles found himself fixated by a passage in which Abbey detailed that there were “some, even in the Park Service, who advocated spraying Delicate Arch with a fixative of some sort—Elmer’s Glue perhaps or Lady Clairol Spray-Net.”

As Stiles detailed on his blog, he ended up tracking down an obscure document from the park’s file cabinets titled “The Delicate Arch Stabilization Project.” As it turned out, NPS officials had in fact proposed coating the arch in a silicone epoxy or even encasing the weak leg with a cement collar.

Although a park official by the name of Bates Wilson went so far as to order samples of silicone blends from manufacturers to appease his superiors, all the blends proved unsatisfactory for the job. According to Wilson, the weather either caused the epoxies “to turn white, or scale off or both.”

Given the current Presidential administration’s assault on our national parks, Wilson’s desire to preserve them for as long as possible is certainly understandable. In retrospect, however, it’s a good thing that Wilson resisted his superiors’ wild desire to preserve Delicate Arch at all costs, even if that meant risking the very features that make it so beautiful.