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MOAB — False Kiva isn’t officially listed on the Canyonlands National Park map, but it’s not hard to find with a quick search online. With a breathtaking vista of red cliffs that seem to go on for miles, the kiva has become a hiking destination over the years.
Despite the name, it's also very much a real kiva with plenty of history with the Native American tribes that have lived in Utah.
“It is considered, if not sacred, at least very ceremonial to a number of tribes,” said Terry Fisk, chief of resource stewardship and science for the southeast Utah group of national parks.
However, there’s a dark side to its popularity that park officials have dealt with for more than a decade.
Some visitors have vandalized this ceremonial place with graffiti written on the red rock walls. They have slept overnight without a backcountry permit, started fires in the location, dug into the land and they’ve messed with rock formations — all major park no-nos and even violations of federal law.
Now, after a vandalism case discovered in mid-July, park officials ponder if it’s worth allowing visitors access to the kiva’s alcove anymore. While the trail — which exists but remains off park maps — is open, Kate Cannon, the park’s superintendent, made the decision to close the False Kiva alcove on July 20.
J.T. Blenker, with the photography blog Fstoppers, first reported the incident on Sunday. He wrote someone had started a fire within the kiva and used ashes “to place handprints at the site.” Either that person or someone else then tried to clean it up and made it worse.
“I would say (the vandalism case) was on par with some of the previous vandalism," Fisk said. "Whoever did it tried to erase some previous graffiti and, in doing so, kind of caused more damage than the original graffiti. It’s just a bad situation.
“It wasn’t necessarily that it was more egregious this time than in the past, but it was kind of the last straw,” he added. “We came to the conclusion that we can’t let the situation continue on its own because it’s just spiraling out of control.”
Park rangers have no idea who vandalized the kiva in mid-July, and there’s no timetable for when or if it will reopen, Fisk said.
“We came to the conclusion that we can’t let the situation continue on its own because it’s just spiraling out of control.” - Terry Fisk, chief of resource stewardship and science for the southeast Utah group of national parks
Vistors can still hike to the location and see the kiva from a distance, but a sign was placed on the trail that tells visitors the alcove is closed. That means hikers and photographers won’t find the popular view people can find online of the kiva and its glorious vista.
“Photographers who want to take that classic shot that seems to be so highly desired — that is not currently possible,” said Karen Garthwaite, interim chief of interpretation and visitor services for Arches and Canyonlands national parks. “In order to take that particular shot, that particular angle, that does require entering the site and that’s been a part of what has been causing so much damage all these years.”
There is hope for those who may want to see that view one day, though. Fisk said park officials plan to use National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act guidelines, as well as work with other government agencies and Native American tribes associated with the park, to figure out how to handle future access to the site.
No alternatives have been decided, but Fisk said one option is to reopen the alcove with a little less access than before while another could be to close it altogether. He said there’s also a possibility it would only be open for guided tours with a ranger.
A final decision could be made in the next few months, Fisk added. The kiva will remain closed until then.
Whatever the option may be, officials hope that will hamper any sort of vandalism at the site.
“These sites have tremendous cultural significance to Native American tribes, and we thoughtlessly or willfully desecrate those sites somehow, that is a direct violation of their cultural integrity,” Fisk said. “That is, really, an unacceptable action and these are sites that should be treated with respect and with humility and they’re not intended to be a posting place for social media or graffiti or anything else.”