My name is Alan Gegax, and I am the chief of the Las Vegas Hiking & Outdoors Meetup. We are the hiking group that Branch Whitney singled out, without naming, in his essay in Desert Companion’s April 2011 issue (“Twenty-one is a crowd”). I would like to address what he wrote about us, but more importantly, I’d like to bring to your attention some of the misleading facts he claims in the rest of the essay.
The bulk of Whitney’s article is about proposed size limits on group hiking in the core area of Red Rock National Conservation Area. I wonder if Whitney has ever read the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental assessment, because I have, and the “magic number” to which he refers does not appear within it. The assessment puts restrictions on groups that apply for special recreation permits, and does the work in advance of assessing the environmental impact of such groups within two areas of Red Rock. However, nowhere in the environmental assessment is a threshold placed on the maximum number of hikers allowed in a group above which a special recreation permit would be needed. Unless the final draft of the environmental assessment is markedly different from the first two drafts, the bulk of Whitney’s article is about an issue that does not exist.
Furthermore, according to BLM officials, that “magic number” Whitney mentions would be set by an entirely different process, when the BLM determines “use numbers.” That process has not even been started.
Whitney also makes a number of accusations about our group, many of which are true — sort of. Whitney writes that we occasionally brought more than 80 hikers on a single hike. He is no doubt referring to our Moonlight Hikes, which were very popular with our members. We did have a number of hikes of that size, but we have never had a hike of that size within the core area of Red Rock, the focus of Whitney’s essay. Large hikes of that sort have occurred only at carefully selected sites with a mind toward minimizing our impact, such as Railroad Tunnels or Anniversary Narrows, where we’re hiking on well-worn trails built to withstand heavy traffic. Additionally, those hikes all occurred at night, when there was nobody else on the trail or in the parking lot, thereby eliminating the possibility of our large group impacting other hikers negatively.
Regarding drinking beer on the hikes, I carry a large backpack on those hikes (her name is ALICE) with beer inside. ALICE only holds 36 beers, which is usually less than a beer per person. We’re all adults, and obviously nobody can be forced to enjoy an ice-cold beer if they don’t want one. Further, we have never had a significant injury on any Moonlight Hike, and our locations are carefully chosen with safety in mind.
Finally, on many Moonlight Hikes, we have had rangers waiting for us at the trailhead, and without exception, we have been welcome to hike with their blessing.
The only part of Whitney’s accusations that is truly accurate is that we are a big part of why the rangers at Red Rock started looking into limiting group hiking. Our group, now more than 4,500 strong, has been quite successful at our primary objective: getting people outdoors to enjoy the beauty of Southern Nevada and its surrounding areas. For a while, we were victims of our own popularity, in that larger and larger groups were showing up for our posted events. We began voluntarily placing size limits on many of our hikes before we were ever contacted by the rangers. Once the rangers got to know us, it was evident that we were doing good work on behalf of our public lands and providing benefits for our members and the public of the type Whitney mentions in his essay. In addition, we have adopted three trails at Red Rock, and one each at Lake Mead and Mt. Charleston. It is fair to say that we have a cooperative and thriving relationship with all of the land management agencies in Southern Nevada, especially the BLM.
Alan Gegax, Chief, Las Vegas Hiking & Outdoors Meetup