A sprawling network of camping resorts soon could begin unfolding in the Kolob highlands on Zion National Park’s northern boundary, potentially resulting in an influx of overnight use in a remote and scenic part of southern Utah.

Late last year, Ian Crowe, a St. George real estate broker, filed applications with Washington County officials to develop up to nearly 3,000 camping sites, including yurts, tents, vintage trailers, shipping containers, even treehouses, near Kolob Reservoir and the park’s Lava Point, about 25 miles up the winding Kolob Terrace Road from the town of Virgin.

But the project was largely kept under wraps until about a month ago, when a Kolob property owner named Justin Heideman saw a small notice posted by a road, announcing a May 12 hearing before the Washington County Planning Commission.

“Everyone feels this is pretty sneaky in the way it was done,” said Heideman, a St. George lawyer who had been hunting turkeys near his family’s property at Kolob Reservoir when he saw the sign about the hearing.

Heideman notified other property owners and helped launch a Facebook group called Preserve Kolob Mountain, which in turn alerted the National Park Service and the Washington County Water Conservancy District to the project for the first time.

Crowe’s filings in support of the 1,200-acre Above Zion resort and three other smaller resorts indicate their purpose is to relieve pressure on Utah’s most popular national park by providing campsites, which would be supplied with millions of gallons of culinary water from the district.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

But park and water district officials were unaware of the proposal and have since raised numerous concerns, according to Heideman.

For about the past century, Kolob Mountain has been used mostly for ranching with about 270 seasonal homesites scattered around the juniper-covered draws above the famed Narrows of the Virgin River. At 8,000 feet in elevation, the Kolob area is snowbound in winter and inaccessible, but the summer population can reach as high as 800 on busy days, according to the county’s general plan.

The lack of easy access and utilities has prevented the area from becoming another dense subdivision like Duck Creek, several miles to the north on State Road 14.

A dam on Kolob Creek, built in 1956, formed Kolob Reservoir, a favorite fishing and camping destination for residents of Cedar City, Hurricane and other nearby communities.

The rise of ‘glamping’

The resort proposal hopes to make this landscape available for more people to enjoy its natural wonders and serene views, according to Bruce Baird, a Salt Lake City lawyer for Crowe’s Zions Gate Management Co.

“The public spaces such as Zion and Bryce [Canyon] and the other national and state parks are just being smashed with overcrowding,” said Baird, one of Utah’s most prominent land-use lawyers. “The theory is to provide a place under controlled and appropriate circumstances where people can appreciate the lovely outdoors of southern Utah, like some of the people who already live there.”

Above Zion builds on the concept of “glamping,” which is catching on at private resorts near national parks and other protected lands where visitors can experience the area without relying on public resources, he explained.

A neologism combining the words camping and glamour, glamping refers to well-appointed outdoor accommodations in canvas yurts or other temporary structures that provide the joys of camping but without the trouble of setting up a cozy camp.

Above Zion proponents are seeking a conditional-use permit from the unelected Planning Commission, whose decision can be appealed to the Washington County Commission. Some 12,000 have signed a petition on Change.org asking the county to reject or at least scale back the proposal.

“It’s unknown if the county has any answers to these issues and even if they were willing to rectify all of these issues, which would almost certainly come at a high cost to taxpayers,” property owner Jonathan Bowman wrote in an email. “Building all these facilities and the influx of people would destroy the rural nature of Kolob.”

Public concern or fear?

The May 12 hearing was conducted online, but after nearly 700 people unsuccessfully tried to join, the Planning Commission was forced to terminate the meeting because legally it had to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate.

Because the meeting was cut short, Baird cautioned, Zions Gate was not able to fully present how it would solve the access and utilities concerns, so the public has only a partial picture.

“So a lot of people are speculating on what reality is and, in many ways, it’s wrong,” Baird said. “They fill in the blanks with fear.”

A tentatively rescheduled meeting for Tuesday, June 23, is likely to be scratched, and Zions Gate plans to submit additional documents addressing issues that have surfaced in recent weeks.

Glamping-style resorts are under development elsewhere in Washington, Kane and Garfield counties, whose commissioners have raised concerns they evade regulations that normally apply to tourist accommodations and would tax county services. But none of these projects, such as the nearby Under Canvas, approach the magnitude of Above Zion’s four resorts, which would combine for 1,731 aces and various sites to accommodate a full array of camping flavors. Some would be full-tilt glamping, while others would be primitive and RV sites.

Sites would be clustered in groups of six to 30 around common restrooms and pavilions and be served by a network of 26-foot-wide roads. Open fires would be forbidden and the surrounding land would be stripped of dead vegetation. The operating season would run May to October, and Crowe expects to see an 80% occupancy rate with 2.5 campers per site.

Can Kolob handle thousands of visitors?

That means Above Zion could be hosting as many as 4,000 people at a time if it achieves full buildout of 2,000 sites. Zions Gate’s proposed smaller resorts nearby are called Above Zion South Shore, Above Zion Highlands and Above Zion East.

“The project’s varying terrain allows seclusion of one campsite from another as does the natural vegetation,” wrote Above Zion’s architect Richard Kohler. “The drive up Kolob Mountain road is in itself a not-to-be-missed scenic drive unknown to most Zion National Park visitors.”

That’s putting it mildly, critics counter. The 25-mile Kolob Terrace Road, which cuts in and out of the park’s western and northern periphery, has no shoulder or guardrails, even in places where it skirts sheer drop-offs.

There are hairpin turns at spots dubbed Sunset Canyon Hill and Maloney Hill, the latter named for the first motorist to die on the road after he drove off the 200-foot drop at the curve’s apex, Heideman explained. “You couldn’t build that road under today’s codes [because those stretches] are too steep. I don’t know if a firetruck can make it around Maloney Hill.”

On behalf of other troubled landowners, Heideman penned a 10-page memo dated June 2 to the Planning Commission explaining what he regards as the project’s many legal and practical pitfalls. Besides the access question, the memo states, other key stumbling blocks include the lack of services and the huge volume of wastewater the resorts would produce.

“There’s no infrastructure, no power, no water. There’s only three spots where you can get a cellphone signal,” Heideman said. “If you have an emergency, you are in big trouble.”

The nearest fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services are based an hour away in Hurricane.

Besides the property owners allied with Heideman, at least four prominent environmental groups are raising objections. Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Zach Renstrom learned of the project from a recent Facebook page, according to a May 13 email exchange between Renstrom and county planning boss Scott Messel.

“I have several technical and legal questions concerning the feasibility of this [project’s] proposed culinary water system. At the very least, the developer should have met with the district so we could have review[ed] any proposed development and then provided a will-serve letter if it was determined that the district could provide the culinary water,” Renstrom wrote. “In general, the state has been strongly opposed to any new private water systems.”

The district maintains several wells and springs throughout Kolob, each with wellhead protection zones that have not been addressed in the resort proposal, his email added. Nor has the issue of wastewater been adequately addressed.

“With the vast number of individuals this development will bring to Kolob," Renstrom wrote, "I have concerns about [how] the wastewater could affect the headwaters of the Virgin River and the drinking wells.”

Baird said such issues would be worked out as the proposal develops.

“As a matter of law, we cannot pollute the Virgin River. It won’t happen. We will comply with all health department, water quality and legal requirements,” he said. “We are providing more detailed plans to the county regarding the roads, and obviously the roads will be used in a safe manner.”

Because the resorts’ water needs would be so high, supplemental water would have to be piped up to Kolob, Heideman reasoned. This would require a water line under the Kolob Terrace Road, which winds in and out of designated wilderness associated with the park.

“That would be an expansion of the easements that are there,” Heideman said. “It cannot be done.”

Meanwhile, the National Parks Conservation Association fears that running utilities up the road will increase pressure to develop the many remote private parcels along the road.

Resort proponents contend they have a right to develop their land as long as their project complies with existing rules. Negative public opinion is no legal basis for rejecting the permits, Baird said. Crowe hopes to begin construction this year, phasing in the project over several years.

“It’s small, an exploratory kind of thing to see how it works,” Baird said. “It’s such a beautiful area, and we think it should be shared with people rather than people just saying it’s ours for free and we get to keep everybody out.”