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There’s a plan to improve Zion for tourists and boost the economy

Major development proposed for an east entrance would deliver millions to Kane County.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Hikers play on the sandstone rocks from the Canyon Overlook Trail with a view into Zion Canyon. A new report says a proposed visitor center at Zion National Park's east entrance will bring broad economic benefits to Utah's Kane County.

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Developing the sleepy east entrance to Zion National Park could deliver a $30 million annual economic boost to Kane County, which has historically not enjoyed much of the tourism bounty associated with southern Utah’s busiest and most lucrative destination, according to a new study by the University of Utah.

State and Kane County officials, along with private partners, are seeking to build a visitor center and transit hub outside the eastern edge of the park in hopes of capturing some of the traffic that overwhelms Springdale at the park’s south entrance. The project would be built on 18.6 acres of donated private land a mile and half outside the park on State Road 9, or 10 miles west of Mount Carmel Junction.

The project is known as the East Zion Initiative and would include privately run lodging, dining, hiking and bike trails and other amenities. It would support 451 new jobs, along with $16.5 million in additional earnings and $4.4 million in state and local tax revenue, according to the report posted Tuesday by the U.’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

These numbers speak to the power of Zion — with its soaring sandstone buttresses, slot canyons, epic hikes and abundant wildlife — to draw high-spending tourists to Utah.

Between 2014 and 2019, Zion saw a nearly 50% bump in visitation, which climbed by 1.7 million during that period, reaching a record 4.5 million two years ago, making it one of the most heavily used national parks.

Most of that traffic enters through the south entrance at Springdale, a busy little Washington County town straddling the Virgin River and filled with restaurants, hotels, art galleries and the usual T-shirt shops. The park’s shuttle, which sees 6 million boardings a year, is anchored at the large visitor center at the mouth of Zion Canyon, along with two campgrounds and a museum. There also is a northern entrance off Interstate 15 with a small visitor center.

The east entrance, by contrast, is a quiet place, equipped with a small toll booth, ranger station and a trailhead, accessing the canyon’s stunning East Rim. There are a few picnic tables and two pit toilets. The parking area is not paved. Still, 1 million people enter the park there each year, according to the Zion National Park Forever Project.

An east entrance visitor center is envisioned in the park’s long-range plan, but there is nowhere to site such a facility inside the park, so it makes sense to partner with private landowners, said Zion Forever Executive Director Mark Preiss.

Kane County officials plan to harness a low-interest $15.5 million loan from the Community Impact Board, or CIB, to develop visitor facilities on their side of the park. The county would operate a new multiagency information center, but it would be staffed by Bureau of Land Management and park employees, according to CIB documents.

The National Park Service has already dedicated $33 million toward replacing Zion’s aging fleet of 39 propane-powered shuttles that travel up and down Zion Canyon and into Springdale. The hope is that these shuttles would be designed to fit through the tunnel on State Road 9 so they could connect the park’s east and south entrances, Preiss explained, and possibly support a transit connection all the way to Kanab, 27 miles away from the proposed visitor center.

The proposed east entrance would represent a huge investment in public money, but the payoff for Kane County could be huge and help spread park visitation to less-visited areas, according to the Gardner report.

National park visitors tend to be big spenders in Utah, with each traveler spending $1,333, on average, per stay in 2019, the report said. That translates into nearly half a billion dollars spent outside the parks in “gateway” communities, such as Springdale, Torrey and Moab. Zion is king when it comes to driving tourism spending, commanding more than half this total.

In 2019, Zion visitors spent $253.6 million in Kane and Washington counties, supporting 4,438 jobs and $140.5 million in earnings. The majority of the action is unfolding on the Washington County side of the park.

“How do we extend that experience across the greater Zion landscape?” Preiss said. “By doing so you are helping strengthen rural economic opportunity because you are taking that activity outside the gates of the park.”

The proposed visitor center would be built on the north side of the highway on land donated by Stacey and Kevin McLaws, owners of the nearby Zion Mountain Ranch. It would tie into a 35-mile network of bike trails proposed for north of the road, Preiss said, and another 40 miles of hiking trails south of it.

The East Zion plan includes plenty of commercial space that would compare with the “city” that has arisen just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. On the drawing board are a theater, cafe, shops, outfitters, even a farmers market, the Gardner report states. Also proposed are nearly 300 residential units and four hotels, combining for 337 rooms, including a Grand Mountain Lodge that would resemble the historic lodges at some of the West’s marquee parks.

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