Zion National Park leader reaches out under the weight of record-setting visitation

Crowds at the entrance to the Narrows file photo for illustration purposes, Zion National Park, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The strain of increased visitation is fraying the edges of Zion National Park. So park personnel are reaching out to the public and leaders to protect this unique and historical treasure.

“As we’ve seen visitation increase, we obviously see more need to step up our game and to deal with some of the issues that come with this visitation,” Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said.

Zion National Park shattered visitation records in 2021 by exceeding 5 million annual visits for the first time in its history. Compared with a decade ago, Zion’s visitation has nearly doubled.

“We’re delighted to have visitors come and enjoy our parks and public lands,” Bradybaugh said. “A key component of our mission is to conserve and protect the resource which attracts people and do that in perpetuity.”

Bradybaugh said the Park and National Park Service would collaborate for the future with its neighbors and stakeholders. The Park will work with federal, state, county and municipal governments to understand what increased visitation has meant for them, as well as the park.

A bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah, Dec. 6, 2021 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

“We will continue to work collaboratively so that we protect the unique resources that make Zion an iconic destination,” he said.

Public comments will be added to The Zion Park General Management plan, which is the park’s guiding document in facing its challenges.

“We’re going to continue our visitor use planning and provide an update later this year, which will be coming out to our stakeholders’ public visitors, committee members and elected officials to seek input as we move forward with our planning process,” Bradybaugh said.

Some of the cooperating agencies assisting in that planning process include county commissioners surrounding the park, the Bureau of Land Management, Springdale and the Utah Office of Tourism. 

One of the Park’s partners, the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office, coordinates planning with the Park and others to implement regional solutions to better service visitor needs.

“Zion National Park faces unique challenges with infrastructure, funding and staffing,” Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office, said. “And we are committed to do all we can to support those needs to ensure a positive visitor experience.”

His office is involved with the Park and other strategic partners and land managers to implement regional solutions to serve visitors better.

View of the Watchman and the Virgin River in Zion National Park, unspecified date | Photo provided by Pixbay, St. George News

“This regional strategy may be the most important thing we can do to alleviate pressure from some of the challenges inside the Park,” he said.

Lewis acknowledges the tourism economy creates an opportunity for most aspects of southern Utah. He said it is essential that leaders do not lose sight of its vital role in “quality of life.”

“The mission of our office is to maximize the revenue generated by visitors, to create a superior experience for visitors and residents,” Lewis said. “What happens in Zion is critical to that mission, but our focus goes well beyond the Park.

“We are investing millions in visitor-generated revenue into trails, parks and recreation facilities that provide opportunities for visitors and residents outside of the Park.”

Bradybaugh said the Park is also part of a regional recreation planning effort through the Conservation Fund. The National Conservation nonprofit has a program that balances nature and community needs.

“So between these two planning processes, we hope to inform each other and work on solving some of the issues that affect all of us, and the communities as well,” he said.

Now that more visitors are enjoying the park than ever before, it strains the park’s resources to protect what makes Zion so special, he said. The Park’s goal is to continue its high standards for visitor service.

“Our visitors value their parks and public lands,” he said. “At the same time, intense visitation presents challenges to achieve our mission to conserve the Park’s resources and provide engaging visitor experiences – experiences that lift and renew our spirits.” he said.

Some of the areas that are affected by Zion’s increased visitation include:

  1. Animals, landscapes, plants, and history
  2. Potential increase in vandalism to natural or cultural resources 
  3. Housing shortages
  4. Staff, volunteers and infrastructure
  5. Visitors’ experiences
  6. Partners and neighbors

Measuring the increased visitation effect on wildlife is difficult, Bradybaugh added.

“Obviously, some wildlife is affected more by intense visitation than others,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that the habitat is protected, and visitors keep a safe distance from wildlife.” 

The different seasons also have repercussions. Winter is usually a higher stress time of year for most wildlife. They are using more energy to maintain themselves. Females may be caring young, which requires more energy as well. At the same time, their food sources are at the lowest nutritional value. The mule deer forage on shrubs, grasses, and other not actively growing plants. So their nutritional value is less at that time. Bradybaugh said the intensive visitor use during the winter season may cause a deer to use more energy. 

“That’s a potential impact,” he said. “So we have to make sure that we balance the number of visitors with those resource concerns.”

Zion is home to over 78 species of mammals, 291 types of birds, 37 species of reptiles and amphibians and eight species of fish. Often some of the animals create burrows or dens in the heat of the day, or choose to be nocturnal.

The National Park designation protects all the animals in Zion, but some animals are of particular importance. Zion is a critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, classified as threatened at the federal level. Also, a small population of Mojave desert tortoises and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher call the park home. Another two bird species to watch for in Zion are the peregrine falcon and California condor

Another concern Zion faces is the vandalism to natural or cultural resources and some of its facilities.

“What we’ve done is to step up our volunteer program to have people in the field making contact with visitors, as well as having our rangers out there,” Bradybaugh said. “But we know when we’re talking about vandalism, we’re talking about a very small percentage of park visitors.”

More contact with staff and volunteers educating the public about why it’s crucial to protect these resources can be very effective. Bradybaugh also credited the Utah Office of Tourism and the local Greater Zion tourism offices for promoting stewardship of public land resources. Also, various land management agencies are trying to put more people in the field and upgrade their public educational programs.

Bradybaugh said that the National Park Service (NPS) must address the increasing pressure on park resources, staff, volunteers and the significant infrastructure maintenance backlog. Planning is essential to continue to provide enjoyable opportunities for visiting the park. Since 2016, the NPS has been developing a plan to provide high-quality visitor experiences and sustainably manage park resources. The Park collects visitor use and preferences data as part of this planning effort. It is testing potential solutions to accomplish the plan’s goals.

The new Angels Landing Pilot Permit Program is part of this effort. This year, the lottery allows one permit for up to six people. Later in 2022, Zion plans to share updates on visitor use research and feedback from visitors and other stakeholders. 

“The planning effort will leverage the NPS’s park management expertise and strengthen our collaboration with stakeholders to accomplish our shared mission of protecting Zion so that visitors can enjoy it today and forever,” Bradybaugh said.

Another part of long-term planning is how to address the shortage of housing in the area for workers. Bradybaugh said housing is still challenging for Park staff. There are minimal options for housing. Some units need to be saved for seasonal and emergency service workers. The Park recently added some new housing units, but he said it is insufficient.

“They have the same issue as any of the workers in Springdale and beyond,” he said. “We have added a few housing units in the park recently. But there’s still a need.”

Another way the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism office assists the Park is to educate guests to explore opportunities outside of Zion. This message alleviates some of the pressure on the Park.

“We’ve also had success bringing iconic events like the IRONMAN World Championships to the area,” Lewis said. “These events take place entirely outside the Park and they bring in passionate and disciplined people from around the world who spend more, stay longer, and care for the places they recreate in.”

The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism office enjoys a strong relationship with the leaders and teams at Zion National Park, added.

“We are lucky to have such a treasured resource in our area,” Lewis said. “We have an important responsibility to care for it.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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