Planners engage with public to solve overcrowding concerns at Zion National Park

HURRICANE – As visitation to Zion National Park grows, so grow the issues and thus park management is proposing limiting the number of visitors allowed in the park at specified times and locations. The second of seven public scoping sessions presenting a visitor use management plan and receiving public input in an informal open-house format was held Tuesday at the Community Center in Hurricane. 

A poster shows information about Zion National Park's visitation trends at a public scoping seassion held at the Hurricane Community Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 25, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News
A poster shows information about Zion National Park’s visitation trends at a public scoping seassion held at the Hurricane Community Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 25, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Background

Visitors to Zion National Park can attest that it has been a madhouse of late – hour-long shuttle lines, challenging searches for parking spots, shoulder-to-shoulder hiking on popular trails, and other headaches.  

Visitation is expected to top 4 million this year (599,000 visitors came to the park in July alone) and visitors expecting a pristine park experience have been unpleasantly surprised when they arrive.

“With increasingly concentrated use and overwhelmed facilities, we are concerned with health and safety issues; diminishing quality of visitor experiences; and associated impacts to soils, vegetation, water, wildlife habitat, soundscapes, and cultural resources,” Zion Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a recent newsletter distributed by the park.

“Visitor capacities define the maximum amounts and types of use that an area can accommodate while achieving and maintaining desired conditions,” the newsletter said. “Visitor capacities, which could vary by season and/or specific areas of the park, would be established, along with implementation techniques that would directly manage the amount and time of visitor access.”

Park management commenced the development of a visitor use management plan in January to address crowded conditions and improve visitor experience. The current phase of the plan involves seven public scoping sessions and one webinar, most taking place this week with the final session scheduled in Kanab on Nov. 1. Schedule of sessions is included at the end of this report.

Public scoping session, Hurricane

The second public scoping session held Tuesday night in the Hurricane Community Center saw a good turnout. Nine Zion park rangers, including Bradybaugh, and two representatives from the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center interacted with interested public in attendance, answering questions and gathering their feedback the old-fashioned way – with large flip-charts.

Four posters on easels posed a visitor-use management question, to which attendees provided their suggestions on how the park could address each question. The questions sought attendees’ suggestions on proposed visitor use management strategies. The rangers at each of the stations wrote that feedback on the flip-charts.

Some of the strategies visitors were asked to comment on proposed to manage visitor access and ensure a more enjoyable experience for visitors through timed-entry and reservation systems. Timed entry could include scaling visitor access via the park’s shuttle system into locations in upper Zion Canyon. According to the park newsletter distributed earlier, a reservation system could require reservations for accessing Zion Canyon so it would not exceed capacity at designated locations.

Other proposed strategies include redesigning the south entrance “to reduce traffic congestion and queues for improved shuttle bus, pedestrian and bicycle access” as well as constructing a multi-modal trail through a portion of Zion Canyon to encourage nonmotorized travel, such as walking and biking.

Bradybaugh said part of the plan would include making visitors aware of the benefits and opportunities of traveling to Zion in the off-season – late fall, winter and early spring – to avoid crowds.

If current trends continue and are not addressed, visitors will not get the exemplary park experience they’re looking for, Bradybaugh said.

Some people want the park to act quickly to address increased visitation but, Bradybaugh said with emphasis, the process is in its early stages; according to the current timeline, a final management plan document will not be ready until fall 2018. They have a lot of information to collect and analyze and want to take their time, he said.

“Each step in the process we have something for the public to react to,” he said at Tuesday’s session.

Park spokeswoman and Chief of Interpretation Aly Baltrus said the park is already taking a few simple measures to address the overcrowding, such as offering express shuttle at the end of the day to transport visitors from the Temple of Sinawava, the last shuttle stop and trailhead to the popular Riverside Walk, directly to the visitor center without making stops along the way.

Bradybaugh was delighted to see the excellent turnout, Tuesday, he said. He was happy to see an engaged public in attendance and noted good discussions going on and “a lot of notes on the flip-charts.”

Baltrus and rangers on hand concurred.

One advantage of the public feedback Bradybaugh noted is that many visitors bring a wealth of experience from other parks across the country that they can compare to their experience at Zion.

Attendees at a public scoping session for the Zion Visitor Use Management Plan interact with park rangers and provide their input, Hurricane Community Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 25, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News
Attendees at a public scoping session for the Zion Visitor Use Management Plan interact with park rangers and provide their input, Hurricane Community Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 25, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The park is addressing similar issues now as it did in 2000 when it implemented the current shuttle system, Baltrus said. Before the shuttle system began, people turned away seeing the overcrowded conditions. Today with the shuttle system in place, the park has no trouble bringing people in, she said, but must determine carrying capacities and apply management strategies to ensure each visitor has a positive experience.

Shuttle lines didn’t even exist until 2012, Baltrus said, but unfortunately they are the norm today. Just last Saturday there were 45-minute shuttle lines, she said.

Hurricane resident Sam Cohen said that is just what the park wants to avoid, calling it the “Disneyland effect, where people are always waiting in line.”

Zion management has been receiving complaints from visitors about the park’s crowded trails. Unfortunately, Baltrus said, some visitors start making their own trails to get away from the crowds.

Angels Landing and the beginning of the Narrows, accessed via the Riverside Walk, are two specific areas being considered for a permit system, she said.

“We know we are way, way over capacity in the Narrows,” Chief of Commercial Services and Partnerships Jack Burns said, explaining that it is nothing new because it has been talked about for 30 years, since he first arrived in the park.

“I hate the idea of turning people away,” Baltrus said, but noted the primary mission of the National Park Service is to preserve and protect parks for future generations – a mandate that has become difficult to follow.

One scoping session attendee even asked Burns if the Park Service mandate should be changed in the wake of recent developments.

The mandate has been in force for 100 years and it is not likely to change, Burns said.

Through this visitor use management process, Burns said, they are developing “adaptive strategies for the long term” to which “adjustments and tweaks will be made.”

The current public scoping process is Step 4 of 13 in the plan process. The comment period began Oct. 17 and ends Nov. 23. Comment may be made at the public scoping sessions, via a webinar on Oct. 31 or online. Other resources are available on the Park Service’s Planning, Environment, and Public Comment website for Zion.

Public scoping details

The first session was held in Las Vegas Monday, the second in Hurricane reported here, with five remaining sessions, a webinar and online commenting opportunities as follows:

  • Wednesday, Oct. 26, from noon-2 p.m. in the Zion Lodge Auditorium, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park.
  • Wednesday, Oct. 26, from 5-7 p.m. in the Canyon Community Center, 126 Lion Blvd., Springdale.
  • Thursday, Oct. 27, from 5-7 p.m. in the Cedar Breaks Room 141 of the Sharwan Smith Student Center at Southern Utah University, 351 W. University Blvd., Cedar City.
  • Friday, Oct. 28, from 507 p.m. in the Aspen Meeting Room on the 5th floor of the Salt Lake City Marriott University Park, 480 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City.
  • Monday, Oct. 31, from noon-1:30 p.m. via webinar | This event is open to first 100 registrants. | Register online via NPS events accessing Event No. 660 176 631
  • Tuesday, Nov. 1, from 5-7 p.m. in the multipurpose room of the Kanab City Library, 374 North Main, Kanab.
  • Oct. 17-Nov. 23 is the comment period for the visitor use management plan. Comments may be submitted online here.

 Zion National Park traffic jam – a St. George News series

The series reports on issues related to Zion National Park’s growth challenges and its ripple effects on surrounding communities. Read the reports here:

  1. Zion National Park traffic jam: A closer look at the overcrowding problem 
  2. Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at official ideas for better parking, access
  3. Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at busing considerations, shuttle upgrades
  4. Zion National Park traffic jam: A look at ideas for limiting number of visitors

Email: rwadsworth@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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4 Comments

  • GuySmiley October 26, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    It is disgusting that such measures should even be considered. Governor Herbert and many greedy City and County politicians continually push the tourism industry. They are blind to the fact that they have trashed the experience of Zion’s National Park for the people who live here. While big business owners and government rake in the money, the quality of life of Washington County residents goes to hell.

  • .... October 27, 2016 at 3:06 am

    Actually the quality of life in Washington County has been declining because of people like RealLowlife and Dumbob

  • Common Sense October 27, 2016 at 6:50 am

    If you advertise it they will come…I hardly go at all anymore because of the crowds. It is sad. When my family comes to town I take them to other less known spots…

  • alexander19 March 22, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    It seems as if the mighty 5 campaign worked too well. To help with overcrowding in zion, measures should be taken to promote other nearby areas in the vicinity of zion. The parks are really only a small portion of the potential southern utah has. Grand staircase escalante for example, is larger than all of the parks in southern utah, sees a fraction of the visitation, and would be equipped to mitigate zion’s problem with overcrowding. Until that happens however, I think a system of permits is almost necessary. The conditions have become unsafe, especially on trails such as angels landing, with hikers having to stand shoulder to shoulder. It’s a difficult measure to take, but it should be taken purely in the interest of public safety.

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