ST. GEORGE — Republican Utah Congressman Chris Stewart said he is against the idea of a visitor limit at Zion National Park following a meeting with local and Washington D.C. officials this week.
Stewart called the meeting on Tuesday, which included park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Ryan Hambleton and a number of Southern Utah officials to discuss ways to disperse Zion’s visitors.
“The public deserves world-class recreation opportunities,” Bradybaugh said. “The focus of our visit, and our intentions moving forward, will be centered on how we can achieve that.”
The group toured Zion and discussed the issue of overcrowding in the park and how they can work to better the visitor experience while also protecting park resources.
Park leadership has been working to develop a visitor use management plan since 2016, in which they’ve accepted and reviewed public comment on how to best solve the issue of overcrowding. They are currently in the process of creating a draft plan based on the input received, which includes the idea of limiting the number of visitors allowed to enter the park each day. Something that Stewart is strongly against.
“It’s the last thing that I want to have happen. And I think it’s the last thing that the community wants to have happen,” Stewart said. “The park service is obviously looking at it, but I think we’re going to have success in maybe taking a re-look at that and not initiating that program.”
An alternative solution to restricting visitation involves expanding the capacity of Zion by dispersing people throughout the park and surrounding areas.
Many of Zion’s visitors tend to stay in the main canyon, hiking only the popular trails such as Angels Landing and the Narrows. To relieve the crowding in these heavily populated areas, the park and other interested parties have begun taking action to educate visitors about alternative hikes and things to do in Zion, as well as the surrounding areas.
“We are working with neighboring public land managers, local communities and businesses to ensure any decisions we make to support our visitor experience are grounded in a broader understanding of local and regional tourism and recreation trends,” Bradybaugh said.
One such effort that was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting includes an app that is being designed by regional colleges and universities to inform users about the number of available parking spaces as well as the number of people in Zion and on each trail in real time to help visitors decide when and how they want to see the park.
The app would make recommendations for less crowded hikes and would provide information about other parks in the area, such as Snow Canyon State Park.
Another project which is already underway is the development of a new visitor contact station near the east entrance to Zion. The contact station, known as “Applecross Station Visitor Center,” will be a gateway community including private businesses, a shuttle hub and a new trail system, all of which they hope will draw visitors to the east side of Zion and away from the main canyon.
The center is a collaborative effort between Zion National Park, Kane County, the Zion Forever Project, the Bureau of Land Management and the Zion Mountain Ranch landowners.
Stewart is also working to gain support to turn Escalante into Utah’s sixth national park, which could give Southern Utah tourists yet another destination to visit.
Stewart introduced a bill to create Escalante Canyons National Park in 2017, which was not passed. He is currently working to establish bipartisan support in hopes of passing it in a later session.
“With the new Congress under Democratic leadership, it’s going to be harder. But we’re pushing it and will continue to do so,” Stewart said. “We’re going to get it, it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take us.”
The park is still several months away from beginning their internal review of the draft for the visitor use management plan and environmental assessment. A full list of documents and plan progress updates are available through the National Park Service.
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