Above Zion: Proposed 1,700-acre campground project on Kolob Mountain ignites petition of public protest

ST. GEORGE — As of Monday, more than 12,000 people have signed a petition in opposition to Above Zion, a campground project that would encompass approximately 1,731 acres on top of Kolob Mountain and feature a variety of structures from treehouses to vintage Airstreams. The project estimates hosting as many as 5,000 visitors at a time.

Photo of a small cabin prototype for the Above Zion campground project, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Zions Gate Management Company application, St. George News

Submitted in four separate applications by Ian Crowe, the manager of Zions Gate Management Company, Above Zion, would offer both primitive and furnished campgrounds for “glamping,” which is a type of luxury camping that often includes amenities or even resort-style services.

The main development of 1,200 acres would be located south of Kolob Terrace Road behind the Kolob General Store and immediately north of where Kolob Creek borders the northwest section of Zion National Park.

Campgrounds could have as many as 30 sites, and campsites would be clustered around a central tent or pavilion that would have a dining area, restrooms and showers. The application states that the maximum number of units would not exceed 2,000, a number that is dependent on the final design.

Fire pits are proposed as propane-only, and no open fires would be permitted. The Above Zion staff would provide dining, laundry and other concierge services for the furnished sites. A number of recreational opportunities would also be developed over time and could include guided rappelling, rock climbing, canyoneering and more on private land.

Above Zion would operate May through October. At an estimated 2.5 people per site, Above Zion could see as many as 5,000 visitors at a time.

Calm waters slowly drift at Kolob Reservoir, Washington County, Utah, June 9, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

The project is largely marketed as a recreational alternative that could help reduce overcrowding at Zion National Park.

One of the main issues with this development has to do with it being submitted as a conditional use permit.

Several years ago, the state code changed a conditional use permit to be an administrative decision, which means that public opinion cannot influence the approval or denial of a project.

Scott Messel, the community development director for Washington County, told St. George News that for about 10 years, as “glamping” increased across the country, the county has been making changes and looking at how to best manage unincorporated land.

“We get a lot of inquiries about glamping and camping facilities, but it doesn’t mean it’s the appropriate area,” he said.

In response to the rise in “glamping” popularity, the County Commission wanted to amend the county ordinance for land defined as rural recreation grounds and facilities. They decided they wanted to change this from a conditional use to a planned development type of zoning.

“But while we were making that change, we did a moratorium on accepting any applications or processing any applications having to with rural recreation grounds and camping. And the moratorium went for six months,” Messel said.

On the day the six-month moratorium expired, Crowe submitted his application.

Photo shows a “glamping” tent prototype for the Above Zion campground project, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Zions Gate Management Company application, St. George News

Under the pending legislation rule doctrine, the county tried to argue that they had been working on their code, and it was their intent to have a new code adopted, so Crowe would need to meet the standards of the new code.

Crowe appealed this and the planning commission granted it.

“Because of that, it is grandfathered in as a conditional use,” Messel said.

Still, at this point, Messel said he is uncertain whether Crowe’s application will be approved.

“There are a lot of issues and concerns. We have the health and safety issues. We have traffic, drinking water, septic and sewer issues that need to be resolved. There’s also a huge concern with fire,” he said.

While the applications were submitted last fall by Crowe, many property owners and relevant entities were unaware of the project until just days before the Washington County Planning Commission meeting in May.

St. George lawyer Justin Heideman told St. George News that, because of the timing, had he not drawn out for the turkey hunt he might never have known about the proposed project. It was just as he was pulling off his property to go home from the hunt when he noticed a sheet of paper with a map on it of the proposed development.

Calm waters slowly drift beneath a tree at Kolob Reservoir, Washington County, Utah, June 9, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“My jaw just dropped,” he said. “I was like, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I quite literally couldn’t believe that anyone would propose that type of a use in that area.”

Upon returning home, he put in a call to family members and others regarding the issue, and two days later, the meeting was held.

Because of COVID-19 group gathering restrictions at the time, the meeting was held via Zoom. Yet, due to the number of people who attempted to log in — around 750 people — the meeting was canceled.

Heideman and his family have owned property on Kolob since around the 1930s, and for the last 50 years or so, his family has run cattle on the mountain. It’s this type of historic use Heideman worries would become nearly impossible to continue in the case that Above Zion is approved.

“When I was a kid, we used to joke, because the third week in October sounded like the Civil War. You’d just hear report after report of gunshots as people hunted deer and even now elk,” he said. “You put that type of pressure on the resources up there, first of all, you’re going to have a massive number of hunters in contact with a massive number of tourists and that’s just not a good thing.”

Map showing one of the proposed developments in which the yellow dots represent campgrounds with structures and a pavilion; the blue dots represent campgrounds with temporary structures; and the green lines represent proposed roads, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Zions Gate Management Company, St. George News

In response to people who have been asking why anyone thinks they should be told what to do with their private property, Heideman said, “No one’s here to tell you what you can or can’t do with your private property. What they’re here to tell you is that you can’t infringe on others’ private property because of what you want to do on yours.”

“If you take and put this type of use on that mountain in that small of a space, you will destroy what it is,” he said. “There’s no reasonable or rational way to escape that conclusion.”

Heideman started a Facebook page to preserve Kolob Mountain and worked with Craig Perry, a lawyer out of Las Vegas and property owner on Kolob, in starting a petition in order to preserve Kolob, which has garnered nearly 12,000 signatures. He also wrote a letter to the county commissioners vigorously opposing the project.

Crowe’s attorney, Bruce Baird, said in reference to Heideman’s letter, that he was “both legally and factually incorrect.”

Regarding the safety of the roads and whether Kolob Terrace Road with its signature hairpin turns can support an increase in visitation, Baird said they are happy to contribute their fair share to reasonable road improvements.

“It’s obviously in everyone’s interests, including the current residents, that the roads be improved and be safe. And we intend to work with the county to make the roads appropriately safe.”

The project is not going to happen all at once, Baird said. It would be developed in a phased process. He also said he’s never seen a project that used the maximum number of units. He said if you simply do the math and work out occupancy loads, it’s nowhere near the number projected in Heideman’s letter, which suggests that three people per site would add up to 6,000 people total.

He said they do not have exact calculations yet of the projected demand, but it is “certainly likely to be far less than what the worry is with all that.”

This development would help to thin out some of the overcrowding of tourism in Zion National Park, Baird said.

“Zion is overstressed at the moment,” he said. “As everyone who’s been to Zion knows, it’s terribly overstressed.”

The Fort Harmony site boasts a picturesque backdrop of the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park, New Harmony, Utah, June 6, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

If implemented, this development could offer benefits such as jobs and tax money, he said, adding that it’s not just for locals. It would also provide recreational opportunities for people and even locals who have a difficult time finding those in Zion and elsewhere.

Baird said the public opposition isn’t necessarily surprising as he is known to work with developers who are up against controversy. In looking at the opposition posed against the Above Zion project, he said part of the problem is that people don’t like change.

“A lot of people are always happy to have what’s effectively free, open space that is other people’s private property,” he said. “It’s always an issue of, ‘I’ve got mine and you can’t have yours.’ … If you read the comments that have already come in, ‘We’ve been here enjoying our property, but you can’t enjoy your property’ — that’s what it says.”

Baird said they fully intend to comply with all safety and health regulations and work with all relevant authorities to protect the wildlife and other natural resources in the area. If there was a push by the county to put a fire station on the mountain, he said they would certainly contribute their fair share.

He said they have not yet worked out details with the Washington County Water Conservancy District, but they intend to have water on the property.

Kolob Mountain community sign with grazing meadows across the Kolob Terrace Road near the Kolob General Store, Kolob Plateau, Utah, Utah, June 19, 2018 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In the application, the conservancy district is shown as an option for culinary water, not the only choice. The other option is to develop existing springs in which water rights would be transferred from the owner to the development.

The maximum amount of water required for the main site listed in the application is 42,000 gallons per day.

Kevin Wheeler, a native aquatic biologist for the county, told St. George News that he is not aware of any sensitive aquatic species on Kolob, but there are sensitive fish species downstream in Zion.

Considering the estimated visitation in the application, Wheeler said this could definitely pose some impacts, “especially overlaying that kind of infrastructure over any type of habitat you’re going to be replacing native habitat with campground area, especially with roads there’s a lot of chances that native wildlife is going to be impacted by those roads.”

The Kolob Canyons portion of Zion National Park, Kolob Canyons National Park, photo date not specified | Photo courtesy Zion National Park, St. George News

As far as developing springs, especially if they’re going right up to the spring sources, that could have significant impacts on aquatic life, just in terms of reducing the water available for fish and amphibians downstream as well as mollusks.

“Once you have more people tromping around up there, you’re going to have more wildlife encounters,” he said, adding that this would probably cause many species to vacate the area to avoid interactions with people.

Cory MacNulty, associate director of the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association, was also concerned with the short timing in which the public and other entities became aware of Above Zion, especially considering the size of the project and its proximity to Zion National Park.

She told St. George News that because there is only one paved road going up the mountain, all visitors would be crossing a sensitive area of Zion National Park on a narrow and treacherous road that is not developed for a high level of traffic.

“Some of the developments are proposed right up against Zion’s boundary. And that’s right at the headwaters of the Virgin River, which is a wild and scenic river,” MacNulty said. “And so we’re certainly concerned about drinking water access and whether they have enough water rights to accommodate thousands of people as well as the septic and sewer and what happens to the waste of that many people up there right at the headwaters to the Virgin River.”

A Washington County Planning Commission meeting that was tentatively scheduled for June 23 has since been postponed until further information is provided to the county.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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