A $1.5 million deal will keep Utah’s Zion Narrows open to hikers forever

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Hikers in the Narrows in Zion National Park in 2015.

No one will ever see “no trespassing” signs in Zion Narrows, thanks to a complicated land deal tapping money from myriad federal, state and private sources that will keep a historic property in a farming family’s hands, while preserving public access to one of the nation’s finest hiking destinations.

The famed 16-mile trail, which can be hiked by permit only, starts outside Zion National Park’s eastern border and passes through an 880-acre parcel, long owned by the Bulloch family, before entering the park and continuing to Zion Canyon.

For decades, the family allowed hikers to pass through the property known as Simon Gulch, but it posted “for sale” signs last year after the federal government lowballed the land’s value for a potential public acquisition. The impasse has now been broken with easements that shield the land from development and guarantee access to the Narrows forever, under agreements announced late Tuesday by The Trust for Public Land, which orchestrated the $1.5 million deal.

“The interesting thing is the diversity of funding sources. Washington County put money in,” said the trust’s Southwest regional director, Jim Petterson. “Management remains with the Bulloch family, so the land is still private; it just can’t be developed. The state is responsible for monitoring.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The park issues permits for up to 90 people a day to hike the 16 miles down the Virgin River’s North Fork. Permits weren’t sold for a few days in 2018 after the Bullochs posted the signs, which they said were not intended to keep out hikers, but rather to drive their case that the land is precious. Washington County officials arranged a series of short-term accords to keep the Narrows open to the public while a permanent deal was negotiated.

“We got a new appraisal," Petterson said, “and we were able to reach an agreement on the price.”

Simon Gulch was among numerous Zion “edge holdings” — private land just outside park boundaries — that complicate access to some out-of-the-way destinations, such as Orderville and Parunuweap canyons. Additionally, some 3,400 acres in 32 private parcels remain, leaving open the prospect for trophy homes arising inside Utah’s marquee park.

“There’s all kinds of [development] pressure on the park boundaries,” Petterson said. “We are working on another parcel outside park boundaries [that] controls access into one of the side canyons into the Narrows.”

The Narrows deal comes as a welcome birthday present for Zion, which celebrated its centennial last month.

“It took extraordinary commitment from many partners with diverse views to protect this majestic place for people, and shows we can do tremendous things when we work together," said The Trust for Public Land’s CEO, Diane Regas. "The permanent protection of the Zion Narrows Trail will give people the opportunity to experience this special place, in perpetuity.”

The deal’s $1.5 million value reflected administrative costs as well as the price the Bullochs received for the easement.

More than half the money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program. According to the trust, other sources include Utah’s LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation Fund, $110,000; Washington County, $100,000; the Federal Highway Administration, $75,000; private donors, including the National Park Foundation and George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, $360,000.

Securing access to public land with high recreation and conservation value is the primary mission of The Trust for Public Land, which previously had brokered easements for Chamberlain Ranch to serve as the upper trailhead for the Narrows.

It also nurtured two other purchases in recent years, securing vital land inside Zion for public access and preservation. Both resulted in the park’s acquisitions of inholdings on Kolob Terrace, a less-busy area up the paved back road out of Virgin, where visitors can enjoy hikes through stunning high country without the big crowds that clog Zion Canyon.

Last year, the park obtained 35 acres at Firepit Knoll near the Hop Valley Trailhead after the trust raised $354,000 in private money to purchase the parcel. In 2012, the trust arranged a deal for 30 acres at the base of Tabernacle Dome with an anonymous $825,000 donation.

With each passing year, however, such inholdings become more valuable, making the next deal even more expensive and harder to pull off. Fancy homes already can be seen from Zion’s East Rim Trail with even more on the way.

But now the Narrows will always remain open — a walk back in time.