East Zion business owners say their development plan is driven by preservation, not profit

Zion National Park’s quiet back entrance has always been the park’s best-kept secret. How do you develop it without ruining it?

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

Zion National Park • The east entrance to the Edenic desert oasis known and beloved by millions worldwide as Zion National Park is no garden-variety gateway.

For starters, there are no Golden Arches or other fast-food outlets. Neither are there any franchise hotels, tourist traps or unflattering eyesores that often typify towns outside national parks. Instead, the pristine area straddling State Route 9 east of Zion’s back entrance is surrounded by forests and lush meadows where deer graze and bison roam.

No, East Zion — as the area is known — won’t be confused with gateway towns like Utah’s Moab, Montana’s West Yellowstone or Tennessee’s Gatlinburg. And if a small cadre of East Zion property and business owners get their way, it never will be.

“We don’t want to create franchise or corporate development here,” said group member Kevin McLaws, co-owner with wife Stacy of the Zion Mountain Ranch resort. “There is a term for that called ‘Anywhere in America,’ which means you can go anywhere in the country and see the same brands over and over again.”

That doesn’t mean McLaws and other area business owners want to roll up the red carpet, freeze further development or tell visitors to take a hike elsewhere. But they want to create aesthetically and environmentally sensitive development that blends in rather than sticks out. They say the preservation of East Zion — not profits — is their bottom line.

Aware of how much they benefit from the park, McLaws said, group members want to give back by creating a destination that draws Zion visitors and alleviates park overcrowding. They also propose to donate part of their profits to Zion or the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to fund projects like trail construction or to reduce maintenance backlogs.

Moreover, they propose to provide a legacy hotel for tourists and affordable housing for workers and park employees who are too cash-strapped to live anywhere near Zion. They are also putting their land into conservation easements to protect it in perpetuity from unseemly development. They further aim to replace sewer lagoons and septic tanks in the area with a $9.2 million water-reclamation plant that will enable Zion Mountain Local Service District to reuse and thereby save 30 million gallons of water a year.

So what in the name of late conservative economist Milton R. Friedman is going on? Well, the McLaws and other group members will never be mistaken for Edward Abbey-like environmentalists or Che Guevara-style socialists or revolutionaries. After all, they point out, their efforts are spearheaded by the private sector.

A collaborative capitalist vision

No, rather than the fevered imaginations of a few, the property owners attest their East Zion Initiative is a collaborative capitalist vision shared by many. Besides McLaws, the group includes Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort owner Steve Neeleman, Zion Spirit Group founder Elizabeth Rad Elghanayan and a prominent but publicity-shy Las Vegas family. The group also enjoys the support and participation of Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh and other federal, state and county officials.

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

For her part, Utah Tourism Director Vicki Varela characterizes McLaws as a visionary.

“To have an area outside of a national park that is undeveloped, and then have a private-sector landowner with a conservation mindset, who owns thousands of acres, step forward and say, ‘I would like to develop this as a public-private sector partnership,’ " she said, “well, things like that don’t happen. Historians will look back in 100 years and highlight this as one of the key milestone events to ever happen in the state.”

Getting the picture

That said, McLaws concedes the group’s current conservation-minded vision is not what he pictured when he and Stacy bought the Zion Mountain property in 1998. They envisioned erecting a retail store in the middle of the meadow on the property – an appalling idea, he now admits – but opted to try their hand at resort hospitality instead.

With the help of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan, the McLaws started out with 12 cabins and an old shed they cleaned up and converted into a restaurant.

“We cooked on a Weber grill … and an old wok we fashioned out of a tractor disc,” said McLaws, who concedes his vision for the property was clouded at the time.

Gradually, as resort guests talked about their love for the land and its scenic views, a clearer picture emerged. That vision became even more acute when a Massachusetts investor was primed to build homes on a prominent knoll on the south side of the meadow, which would ruin the view that attracted visitors to the resort.

When McLaws found out the developer was considering offloading the land, he offered to purchase it but admitted to not having enough money. The investor nonetheless sold it to him for $1.1 million with no payments or interest for 18 months on the condition McLaws made a balloon payment for the entire amount of the loan at the end of that period.

“I had 18 months to figure out how to come up with that amount, which felt like a Mount Everest-like challenge at the time,” he recalled.

Eventually, McLaws hooked up with the Virgin River Land Preservation Association, which raised funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other organizations to pay off the balance he owed the bank. In exchange, McLaws agreed to create a conservation easement on the meadow acreage that would protect it from further development.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The east entrance to Zion National Park, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

Since those initial few hundred acres, McLaws has now amassed about 8,000 acres he either owns or co-owns — purchases he said were “defensive maneuvers” to prevent unwanted development from taking place.

Thus far, he has done a total of four conservation easements totaling 700 acres. Neeleman has parted with about 2,000 acres of his family’s property, which he said has been placed in a permanent trail easement that will ensure the land remains a beautiful wilderness that the public can access forever.

More conservation easements — thousands of acres — from like-minded group members are in the planning stages. McLaws and Neeleman say the master plan calls for preserving the land along the corridor stretching from the park’s east gate to Zion Mountain Resort.

In August, federal, state and local dignitaries gathered near the park’s east entrance to break ground for the construction of a Discovery Center on 19 acres donated by McLaws and other local property owners. The state is pitching in $25 million to fund construction of the new visitors center and new roads and parking.

Once construction is completed in 2025, the center will be operated by the Zion Forever Project, the park’s nonprofit partner, and provide visitors with more education about the area’s flora, fauna, geology and history. Nearby trails will give hikers and mountain bikers a more hands-on and adventurous experience.

The center will also feature a transit hub where visitors can park and ride into the east part of Zion aboard alternative fuel-powered shuttles that will likely be funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program. Moreover, Washington County is contributing about $200,000 to study the feasibility of operating electric or hydrogen-fuel shuttles from Springdale to the east part of Zion.

In addition, group members have installed 30 miles of trails and plan to create another 70 or more with grants, likely from the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation. As for the water reclamation plant, it is being funded by the state’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board.

Design is also underway for affordable housing on some land parcels tucked away in the trees and out of sight from the highway. Eventually, the master plan calls for building housing to accommodate 1,100-plus workers over the next 20 years, which would be partially funded out of business profits.

Also on the drawing board, if McLaws can find investment partners, is the construction of an 182-room lodge just outside Zion’s east gate that would be loosely patterned after Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel. The lodge would be set up as a benefit corporation, a nonprofit in which the environment and other considerations besides the bottom line would factor into the decision-making process.

Private sector windfall

Finally, McLaws said group members have pledged to donate 2% of their businesses’ gross profits and at for least 50% of the proposed lodge’s net profits to the Zion Forever Project or other nonprofits — an estimated combined total of $3.5 million the first year once everything is up and running.

(Courtesy) Kevin McLaws speaking at the groundbreaking for the Discovery Center in East Zion.

Every bit helps the nation’s national parks, which are underfunded and overcrowded. At the end of Fiscal Year 2022, an estimated $22 billion worth of deferred maintenance existed across the country’s national park system. McLaws said that the money from the group’s initiative could help Zion address its maintenance backlog.

Zion, Utah’s top tourist draw, generated $947 million per year in overall economic output in 2021. It also drew a record 5 million visitors that year, a number Cory MacNulty of the National Parks Conservation Association called “unsustainable.”

Protecting the ‘golden goose’

Supporters like Zion Superintendent Bradybaugh believe East Zion’s Discovery Center and recreational opportunities can ease overcrowding in the park and outside its main entrance in Springdale. Thus far, it isn’t receiving any blowback from Springdale elected officials or business owners.

“I think there is enough visitation and business to go around,” Springdale Mayor Barbara Bruno said.

While East Zion is situated in Kane County, Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow said it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure visitors to Zion have a great experience and are eager to return.

“We don’t want to kill the golden goose that is our largest economic driver,” Snow said. “So we support the East Zion Initiative to further dilute the effects of visitor congestion and to spread people to other parts of the park.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.