At Zion National Park, too many people, too little management

Conservation group urges park managers to make changes that will preserve the land and the experience.

Whether the news coming out of Zion National Park over the weekend is good or bad largely depends on a person’s perspective — and whether they have designs on visiting the Southern Utah jewel in the near future.

The optimistic takeaway is that the park was less crowded in 2022, when its visitation dropped from a record 5 million visitors the year prior, according to a news release issued by the National Park Service on Friday. More pessimistically, last year still ranked as the second-busiest in Zion’s history with 4.7 million visitors. Among the 63 official national parks, it saw the third-most visits.

Zion’s celebrity has created some “challenges,” admitted park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh — ones not resolved by 6% fewer people wandering the park’s trails.

“We are glad that many people are getting outside to enjoy their parks and public lands,” Bradybaugh said in a news release, “but it does present challenges for park staff protecting park resources, maintaining public health, and sustaining facilities.

“We continue to protect Zion so that the millions of visitors who travel to experience the park’s iconic scenery and who patronize regional businesses continue to enjoy their time here.”

Can they enjoy their time in nature with that much humanity around them, though? Cory MacNulty of the National Parks Conservation Association doesn’t think they can with how the park is currently managed.

(Jonathan Shafer | NPS) Zion’s celebrity has created some “challenges,” admitted park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh — ones not resolved by 10% fewer people wandering the park’s trails.

Zion started a Visitor Use Management Planning process back in 2016, a year after the park reached 3.6 million visitors. That plan, MacNulty said, was never completed. And while, according to the news release, the park is conducting visitor use research and planning this year, Zion hasn’t kept up with the surge in interest, especially post-pandemic. To wit, MacNulty noted that the park had fewer full-time employees in 2022 (164) than it did in 2010 (184) even though it saw more than two million more visitors.

“If we’re looking at record visitation year after year, we really think it sets an unsustainable benchmark for protecting the parks long term,” MacNulty said. “These are forever places. If we continue on this growth trend, it’s not sustainable. To ensure protection of the parks or ensure that visitors have really high-quality experiences, particularly for parks like Zion, they are well past the tipping point for their visitation numbers.”

While those numbers may be trending down, they remain high and likely will continue to rise given Zion’s consistent growth in visitor numbers over the past 40 years. And the effects of that increased traffic are compounded at Zion because while it encompasses more than 200 square miles, most visitors want to spend their time in the 10 miles between the visitor center and the start of the Narrows in Zion Canyon. Parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park see almost as many visits as Zion each year, but they can handle it better, MacNulty said, because they have more entrances and their attractions are more spread out.

To be clear, the National Parks Conservation Association isn’t against people visiting Zion or other national parks, MacNulty emphasized. Rather, she said, it’s in favor of parks finding ways to keep from being overrun, ideally while disseminating their tourism to other places of interest in the region.

(Andrew Mace) To deal with overcrowding on one of its most popular trails, last year the park began a pilot program requiring a permit to hike Angels Landing.

“Visitation to the National Parks and visitation to Southwest Utah are not the exact same thing. I think we need to keep that in mind going forward,” she said. “There’s a lot of public lands and there are a lot of communities with amazing reasons to visit, of which Zion is just one.”

The park has taken some steps to mitigate its overcrowding issues.

Back in 2000 it banned nearly all cars in the canyon and now relies mostly on its shuttle system to deliver tourists to its most popular trails. The shuttles have returned to full service since the pandemic and last year were boarded 5 million times — up more than 20% from 2021, according to the National Parks Service. Beginning May 21 this year, they will run every 5-8 minutes from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. out of the main visitor’s center to the Temple of Sinawava.

To deal with overcrowding on one of its most popular trails, last year the park began a pilot program requiring a permit to hike Angels Landing. That program has been broadly praised and will continue this year. Park spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said it allows about 80% of the number of people who had been hiking the trail before permits were required and spreads them out throughout the day.

Zion’s management is also taking measures to protect the park’s scenery. Shafer said the South Campground will undergo a partial closure this year. No details on how many of the sites will be affected has been released, but he said the closures will allow “work crews to begin doing the groundwork that needs to happen so that we can do a full rehabilitation of the campground in the years ahead.”

Realistically, though, Shafer said visitors shouldn’t expect to have the park to themselves, especially in the summer. Visitation in June can be almost twice what it is in November and lines can be long. Pack patience, he advised.

“We want people to understand the kind of experience that you’re likely to have when you get to the park,” Shafer said. “We know that this is a place that many people really enjoy visiting and we’re glad to welcome visitors from across the United States and around the world.

“It is likely that you will encounter a large number of other visitors if you come during the summer months.”

Correction: May 3, 2023, 10 a.m. >> Zion started a Visitor Use Management Planning process in 2016. The year it began the plan was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

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