Could East Zion’s vision be the business model of the future for Utah tourist areas?

Could this be the business model of the future for tourist areas?

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Desert bighorn sheep near Checkerboard Mesa in the eastern part of Zion National Park in September 2023.

Zion National Park • Giving away part of one’s gross profits to government agencies, locking up one’s land in conservation easements to prevent further development and donating premium property for a visitors center just outside Zion National Park doesn’t seem like a winning formula for business success.

It certainly isn’t something that would be taught at Harvard Business School. But Kevin McLaws, owner of Zion Mountain Ranch resort, majored in biology, not business. And his educational roots stem from the region’s former Dixie State College and Southern Utah State College, not East Coast Ivy League institutions.

Moreover, the blueprint he, Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort owner Steve Neeleman and other local property owners are following to responsibly develop the land immediately outside the park’s east entrance owes more to a taxonomy tree chart than it does to standard business models.

(Kevin McLaws) A rendering of a proposed lodge build near the east entrance to Zion National Park.

As drawn up by one of McLaws’ daughters, the Zion Mountain taxonomy chart depicts a tree with roots that tap into core values the backers of the East Zion Initiative support as they oversee development and recreational opportunities in the area — principles such as sustainability, preservation and cultivating land and people relationships.

(Kevin McLaws) This taxonomy chart is helping to guide development of East Zion.

Precisely what that model — McLaws calls it “contributory capitalism” — might look like was outlined in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article. It includes East Zion property owners donating 2% of their gross profits to Zion National Park or federal agencies for use in building trails or to reduce maintenance backlogs, among other projects.

It also involves being wise environmental stewards. Thus far, East Zion group members have placed 2,700 acres in conservation easements to protect portions of their property in perpetuity. They also plan to build more than 100 miles of trails. And they have already donated 19 acres for the construction of a Discovery Center, a visitors center outside the park’s east entrance that Zion Forever Project, the park’s nonprofit partner, will operate to provide guests with more education about the area and a more hands-on outdoor recreational experiences.

Group members concede some might look at their taxonomy chart and wonder if they are out of their tree. Still, they insist, they have good reasons for branching out from traditional business models.

“Everyone wants their memories to last,” McLaws said. “People want to come here and see the same meadow and buffalo herd they saw when they were here as newlyweds or children.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin and Stacy McLaws’ Zion Mountain Ranch, outside the east entrance to Zion National Park, in September 2023.

Aside from preserving the land and memories, group members want to alleviate overcrowding at the popular park, which attracted a record 5 million visitors in 2021, and lure them to attractions outside the park where they can learn more about the area and get a better feel for the land through hiking, biking and other outdoor adventures.

Another motivation is for area businesses to give back to Zion through cash and other contributions — to help the park become less dependent on federal dollars, something McLaws views as critical since the nation’s national parks are as underfunded as they are overcrowded.

Even more important, McLaws said, the East Zion Initiative is about countering all the negativity coming out of Washington, D.C., and providing young people with hope.

“We are constantly telling youth that [the nation] is in decline … and there is no point to their future,” he said. “...We want to demonstrate a more hopeful, contributive model that gets traction and builds on the legacy of our national parks — one that demonstrates something that is abundant and not in decline but is actually getting healthier as the years go by.

“I want them to see a better way to be healthier,” he added, “and to have some of the same experiences I had growing up in rural Utah.”

Read more here about the East Zion Initiative that Utah Tourism Director Vicki Varela characterizes as one of the most visionary efforts in the state’s history and a model for other tourist areas going forward.

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