By Peg McEntee
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Federal officials in Utah are deciding whether to outlaw the increasingly popular daredevil pastime of swinging on ropes dangled from towering sandstone arches and cliffs after one man died and another was badly hurt in the activity.
The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management also is taking into account growing complaints from hikers angry at having the solitude of Utah's deserts disturbed by the whoops and hollers of thrill-seekers swinging from the landmark arches.
Corona Arch, near the Colorado River in east-central Utah, has become a particularly popular spot for the rock-swinging crowd, and also the scene of a fatal accident involving one enthusiast in 2013 and a more recent mishap that left another man with a severe head injury.
In both cases, the victims jumped from the arch with ropes that had too much slack.
“We're trying to determine if these activities are appropriate in these places,” Rock Smith, supervisory outdoor recreation planner at the BLM's field office in Moab, Utah, said on Thursday.
He said the agency had launched an assessment of possible restrictions on rope swinging at Corona and the nearby Bowtie Arch, as well as at the twin Gemini natural bridges. Results of the study should be available in a few months, Smith said.
BLM took control of 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) of public land encompassing the arches last month in a real-estate swap with the state to open up other lands for energy development.
The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration previously barred rope-swinging permits for commercial outfitters in the area, but private individuals kept pursuing the activity on their own, the agency's Bryan Torgerson said.
The arches and natural bridges are about 10 miles (16 km) east of Moab, and about 40,000 hikers visit them each year, Smith said. But a growing number of visitors have come to swing from the arches, while others rappel down them or traverse the rock formations using zip-lines.
The area also is popular for biking, all-terrain vehicles and the extreme sport of base-jumping, in which climbers skydive from high cliffs with parachutes.
“You see our challenge,” Smith said. “How to mesh all this to protect everybody's experience.”
Rope swinging is strictly prohibited in national parks, "and we have not had it occur," said Kate Cannon, superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.
(Reporting by Peg McEntee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)