When Castle Valley Town Councilor Pamela Gibson took her regular morning walk to the rust-red ridge between Castleton Tower and Adobe Mesa the morning of Sept. 3, she encountered “visual blight.”
A small clearing at the end of a four-wheel-drive road was littered with tables, chairs, catering equipment, trash and food scraps, much of it pushed off the road into vegetation. Glass candles, some of which had shattered, lined the road alongside tire tracks that had veered into delicate cryptobiotic soil. Trash cans lay on their sides. A California-based rental company’s semitruck had somehow navigated the winding road to haul the junk away.
“I was shaking I was so mad,” said Gibson, who knew a wedding had taken place there the evening before.
Gibson returned to the site the next day, Monday. Though much of the furniture had been removed, piles of broken-down cardboard and trash bags remained. Several of the bags had been ripped open — by animals, she surmised — and litter and food scraps were strewn about the area.
By Wednesday, all the waste seemed gone, but the event had still left its mark on the area with off-road tire tracks and crushed vegetation.
“That huge truck was just too wide for the road so it was squashing all the vegetation,” Gibson said. “It was just a mess.”
It’s that mess that spurred the Castle Valley Town Council to urge the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees those lands, to ban or restrict weddings at the base of Castleton Tower.
After its Sept. 20 meeting, the council sent a letter to the agency’s local field office asking that weddings be entirely banned from the spot after the Labor Day weekend “extravaganza.” If weddings must be allowed, the letter continues, the BLM ought to beef up its permitting process, require deposits and charge fines for violations.
“What we are concerned about is future requests such as this,” reads the letter, signed by Castle Valley’s four councilors and mayor. “… It is reasonable to anticipate there will be more requests for weddings at this location in the future. And it is reasonable to anticipate that misunderstandings or misrepresentations will occur unless there are clear restrictions and consequences.”
The letter argued that the Los Angeles-based wedding couple, who could not be reached for comment, effectively lied in their letter of agreement with the BLM.
According to that document, obtained by The Times-Independent, the wedding would comprise a ceremony and reception with 12 guests. No businesses would be involved and the only equipment would be non-amplified music and a “small shade tent.”
“Based on our evaluation of your planned activity,” the document reads, “[a special recreation permit] does not appear to be necessary.”
When asked for comment, BLM spokesperson Rachel Wootton said weddings are typically approved through a letter of agreement that does not authorize commercial services. Those services require special recreation permits, which have been provided to over 36 entities, Wootton said. This year, the agency has also issued 48 letters of agreement for weddings.
For Castle Valley officials, the Sept. 2 wedding’s letter of agreement clearly elided many details: the involvement of a rental company, caterer, floral designer and portable toilet provider; the 24-foot cabana, 20-person table and large generator; the 150 feet of glass candles; and the fact that much of the detritus littered the site for days.
“They occupied the base of Castleton Tower and effectively excluded the public for the entire Labor Day weekend,” the letter reads. “Had they been truthful and disclosed these plans to the BLM, we believe that the BLM would not have issued its letter of agreement.”
The Castle Valley letter requests that if weddings can’t be forbidden by Castleton, those letters of agreement should include more stringent time specifications; forbid fires, glass candles, tents, generators, most furniture and large vehicles; require deposits and fines for violations of the letter; and, if businesses are used, make them liable for damages.
The letter also mentions allegations that BLM rangers eventually had to clean up the area. Wootton did not respond to a related question.
Tara Baker, owner of the local event planning service Terra Vida Events, said the description of the Castleton event did not resemble any events she’s seen with local companies.
“I think the local wedding industry has the Moab area’s best interests in mind,” she said. “This is our home too.”
Baker said her team works hard to maintain a positive relationship with the BLM and educates visitors about the desert environment. Any events on public lands take place in already-impacted areas, and clean-up always occurs the same day as events.
“We make sure that we’re the first ones on site and the last ones to leave,” Baker said.
Gibson stressed that the Castle Valley letter was not intended as a critique of the BLM.
“They’re hardworking people — they just don’t have the resources,” she said. “If our Congress is not going to give the resources to this important agency, then we shouldn’t be doing this stuff.”