Property owner in Zion Narrows closure wants to welcome back hikers, but says the feds need to step up

(Christopher Cherrington) | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Scott Bulloch wants you — and thousands of other hikers each year — to be able to cross his family’s land in the Zion Narrows.

Better yet, he wants the federal government to own or at least hold easements on his 880-acre parcel along Zion National Park’s eastern boundary.

He just wants fair consideration for property he and his family have held for 50 years, Bulloch said Wednesday, after they posted signs announcing a “trespassing fee” where the canyon enters the area known as Simon Gulch. The sign prompted the National Park Service to suspend issuing permits to hike what is considered among the world’s most sublime slot canyons — just as the fall tourism season is ramping up.

“We feel that property should belong to the public," Bulloch said, “and we would like that to happen.”

All the agencies involved in the proposed acquisition of public easements say they want the same thing, but federal regulations over land appraisals appear to be getting in the way.

For the past few years, Bulloch and his sons have been negotiating with the feds, who the elder Bulloch now contends are lowballing the property. Out of frustration, the family posted the controversial signs, which also announce the property is for sale.

Triggering that move was the federal government’s rejection of a third-party appraisal, commissioned by the nonprofit organization Trust for Public Land. Bulloch believes the signs will drive home a point: the Simon Gulch property is far more valuable to the American public than nearby ranchlands with no Narrows connection.

One sign reads: “Permission to Pass Subject to Trespassing Fee. Revokable [sic] at Any Time.”

Another two say, “For Sale by Owner. Own Over 1 Mile of the Zion Narrows,” and “880 Acres With Water and Resort Potential.”

“We felt we need to post the signs to get the government’s attention that this is an important piece of property,” Bulloch said. “They seem to ignore the value of that. We think it has the same value as the park itself.”

Normally, the park issues permits for up to 90 people a day to hike the 16 miles down the Virgin River’s North Fork, but park officials now must weigh the “appropriateness” of granting permits to march through a privately owned stretch of canyon adorned in signs threatening “fees” to trespassers.

“We can’t authorize someone to trespass on someone else’s land,” park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said. “If we issue a permit, we are, in effect, doing that. It’s just something we can’t do.”

The suspension of permits is expected to hurt Springdale-based guides and outfitters that support Narrows trips. Many visitors’ fall vacation plans also will be spoiled.

Sandy resident Sherrie Bakke had planned a three-day trip into the Narrows in October with three friends who had secured a permit for multiple nights at one of the backcountry campsites.

Bakke and her friends were thrilled. Most people hustle through the 16-mile hike in just a day or two; their permit gave them an extra day to “thoroughly investigate and hang out and explore” the famed canyon, Bakke said.

The group members haven’t gotten official word from the park that their permit is canceled, but after seeing Tuesday’s news, they are scouting for other options in the park.

"There's so much to do and see down there ... but it's disappointing to have the main event of it taken away from us," Bakke said. "It was a bucket-list item for all of us — just the adventure of it, the beauty of that whole canyon. To be able to get a permit is a feat in itself."

The Narrows experience may be beyond price, but federal land-acquisition rules require purchases not exceed “fair-market value.” To figure that out, The Trust for Public Land hired Park City-based appraiser Christopher Hansen, who issued his report in June. His findings are confidential, but he said he conducted a legitimate appraisal that sought to account for the property’s scenic values.

The Forest Service, which is overseeing the proposed transaction, rejected it because Hansen used comparables that the agency argues inflated the value of rugged land with limited development potential.

A Forest Service reviewer concluded that the appraisal did not meet the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions and “disapproved” it as the basis for federal acquisition of the Simon Gulch easement, according to Michael Richardson, the Forest Service’s director of strategic communications at the regional office in Ogden.

“We are bound by very specific rules. If it doesn’t comply, there isn’t anything we can do,” Richardson said. “We want people to know we didn’t just walk away. We want this access for the American people.”

Another appraisal is in the works, but the first one’s rejection came as a blow to Hansen, who has been in the business for 27 years without such a denial.

“I’m flabbergasted, stunned and shocked that this was the outcome," said Hansen, who is concerned the public would wrongly demonize the Bullochs.

“They had been trying to work hard to get something done, but, at the end of the day, they felt they were treated unfairly,” Hansen said. “For years they had been granting people a right to go through [their property] out of benevolence.”

Scott Bulloch said his father, decades ago, made verbal agreements with park superintendents, allowing visitors to hike the property.

“It has been by permission all along,” Bulloch said. “It’s not that we want [to] keep the public out. We want our property rights respected.”

The public, however, may have already established a limited right of access through the property. Under Utah law, a “prescriptive easement” is created when private property is used continuously for 20 years in a way that is known to the owner and the general public, even though the owner hasn’t given express permission.

The park has been issuing permits to hike the Narrows through the Bullochs' land since the 1970s — far exceeding the 20 years needed to establish an easement — and visitors hiked the route unrestricted for decades before that.

But park officials “don’t have the authority for a prescriptive easement,” Bradybaugh said. "The state and state subdivisions do, but we do not.”

Tensions over private property in and around the park ever since President William Howard Taft designated 16,000 acres around Zion Canyon as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909. Through the years, the monument was twice expanded and renamed Zion National Park, now covering 146,624 acres.

Zion is saddled with 3,000 acres of private inholdings, complicating management for the park service. Its boundaries do not cover critical access points for some of the park’s amazing places, including Orderville and Parunuweap canyons.

Securing such access is the mission of The Trust for Public Land, which had previously brokered easements for Chamberlain Ranch to serve as the upper trailhead for the Narrows. The nonprofit organization remains committed to the Bulloch deal, according to Jim Petterson, the trust’s Southwest director.

“The park management plan calls for an access easement," he said. "We intend to see it through in collaboration with state and federal partners.”

The deal is being orchestrated under the Forest Legacy Program, which taps federal offshore oil and gas revenue for private-land conservation and is administered jointly between the Forest Service and the states.

“When the Forest Service people came down and looked at the [Simon Gulch] property, they said this land is priceless. Yet they don’t want to give us anything for it,” Bulloch said. “You can’t compare it with neighboring ranchland because it is the only property with the Zion Narrows.”