East Fork • The McLaws family has owned land outside of Zion National Park for 23 years. Most of this land, which consists of juniper, pinon and pine, would normally be reserved as a family ranch and for off-spring inheritance and fortune. Valued at $1.3 million, they’re giving it away.
The McLaws family donated about 20 acres of their lands to a private-public partnership called the East Zion Initiative, which plans to develop and protect the east gateway entrance into Zion National Park.
One of the first projects to come out of this collaborative is the East Zion Bike Trail Network. On Wednesday, the McLaws, along with state and Kane County officials, the Zion Forever Project and officials from Zion National Park celebrated the first 10-miles of a 24.5 mountain bike trail system that will loop around the eastern edge of the famous park.
Zion National Park is one of the most popular parks in the nation, with approximately 4.5 million visitors coming from all over the world to see its iconic red canyons. Oftentimes, tourists pack into the park’s propane-fueled buses to hike, camp or bike through the 15-miles of the canyon’s steep 3,000 feet cliffs. Park officials want to disperse visitors throughout the park to lessen the impact of the crowds.
“I do understand from talking to people, and having them in moments around the campfire, that people do need this,” Kevin McLaws said, referring to how the East Zion Initiative is trying to develop the land in a sustainable manner.
The East Zion Initiative was founded with the goal of providing new experiences and recreational opportunities that expand beyond what Zion National Park offers in its park borders. Most times visitors come to Zion for popular visits and hikes like Angels Landing and the Narrows, but there is more recreation beyond the cliffs.
Along with the visitor center, the east entrance is getting an electric shuttle bus system. A pilot project by the Utah Clean Cities, the electric buses will begin to shuttle people to and from Zion in Kanab, according to its executive director Tammie Bostick.
Over 23 years ago, the McLaws made an offer on 20 acres of land with future generations in mind. The goal, McLaws said, is to also help offset visitor impact to Zion National Park, which annually attracts about 4 million visitors. This year, the park is already about to surpass the 4.5 million visitors that came in 2019.
“It certainly becomes a place that can relieve the pressure of the main canyon in Zion,” McLaws said after the ribbon-cutting ceremony near the intersection of Highway 9 and North Fork Road.
Construction on the new bike trail, built by American Conservation Experience, began last fall, and will now be a cycling option for the one million visitors that enter Zion National Park’s east entrance, said Zion National Park Superintendent Jeffery Bradybaugh.
The superintendent explained the East Zion Initiative is an example of diversifying the recreational experience for the region.
“We want to provide visitors with a range of experiences,” Bradybaugh said.
The proposed visitor center, which will be staffed by the National Park Service, was a venue that NPS identified as a need in 2000, but has since lacked the money to fully operate it. Overall, the NPS says it has a need for $11 billion in infrastructure.
Bradybaugh added that partnerships — like those with Kane County, the Zion Forever Project, the McLaws family and others — will allow Zion to have a visitor center in the east “with minimal impact to the park’s operation.”
Kane County Commissioner Brent Chamberlain said that development in East Zion has been led by the county and its partners, including the securing of a $15.5 million loan for the proposed visitor center.
Citing the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s report on the economic impact of Zion National Park as the tool for the new growth, Chamberlain said that the park is a vital part of Kane and Washington counties. The report, published in March 2021, found that the park’s east entrance could generate 545 jobs and $36.9 million per year from 2020 to 2030 for southwest Utah.
“It’s just its incredible country, so it provides an opportunity,” Chamberlain said, noting that visitors would be able to park their huge recreational vehicles at the visitor center and have the option to ride in shuttles and no longer slow down traffic through the Mount Carmel Tunnel.
For the Zion Forever Project, which helped to fundraise for the bike trails, the grand opening has finally come to fruition after many months of private-public conversations. Before riding his bike on the new trail, Mark Preiss, director for the Zion Forever Project, said, “I think it’s been inspired by our local community. And I think that when we think about pioneer spirit, this is sort of a next gen[eration] version of that.”