Arches National Park, located in Utah, is home to some of America’s most beautiful rock formations. The most famous of them, Delicate Arch, has always been, well, pretty delicate. So much so that back in the 1940s, park rangers hatched a plan to preserve the natural monument by coating it with plastic.
The fragile monument
Arches has had problems over the years with its famous attractions eroding and eventually collapsing. An arch is a fragile formation, and one that is always going to collapse eventually on a long enough timescale. For instance another of the park’s attractions, Wall Arch, collapsed back in 2008. This kind of change is an inevitable part of nature, but obviously a problem for the park’s custodians.
That’s why back in 1947, park employee Russ Mahan, worried by the conditions of Delicate Arch’s leg, raised the alarm. Mahan believed that the arch’s collapse must be imminent and his concerns led the park service to begin a seven-year effort to find a way of saving it.
The project, which never actually came to fruition, certainly led to an odd place. Among the ideas proposed were strengthening the weak leg with a cement collar and coating the whole arch in plastic. A park official called Bates Wilson got as far as ordering some appropriate silicone blends before the idea was abandoned. The weather, Wilson said, would have caused the material “to turn white, or scale off, or both”.
It’s probably for the best that the plan didn’t get any further than that. In fact, we’d know nothing of the scheme if it weren’t for the detective work of park ranger Jim Stiles, who dug up an old file labeled “The Delicate Arch Stabilization Project”. Stiles told the curious story on his blog.
Schemes like this might seem silly to us now, but perhaps it’s only the prospect of spoiling the arch’s natural beauty that bothers us. These days, our advertising is covered in thoroughly fake depictions of nature, and our real nature is often itself artificial – think of plastic flowers, for instance. The story of Delicate Arch, still standing on its own to this day, begs the question: do we care about nature, or only what we think nature must look like?