From soaring sandstone cliffs to lonesome desert plateaus to clear-flowing rivers, there are countless reasons to visit Utah’s Zion National Park. This week, I’m proud to celebrate a new one: The world-famous Zion Narrows Trail, a wilderness trek through one of the most spectacular canyons in Utah, is protected from development and open to the public forever.
In a deal with the owner of a property called Simon Gulch, The Trust for Public Land just closed the last gap in protected land along the 16-mile route. It’s a fitting milestone to cap Zion’s centennial year, and it shines a light on challenges facing national parks and public lands across the country.
Since adventure-seeking national park visitors first started exploring the Zion Narrows 100 years ago, public access to the canyon has depended on informal agreements with local landowners. The trail begins on private land outside the park boundary, and landowners have had the right to revoke access at any time, for any reason.
For the most part, this arrangement has worked out for visitors and park neighbors alike, but it’s never been a perfect solution. And it’s not just an issue at Zion. According to recent research from The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, access to 9.52 million acres of public land is contingent on permission from private landowners, including 264,000 acres in Utah.
Meanwhile, as the population in the West has grown, so have the demands on our wild places, and landowners are feeling the strain of accommodating an increasing influx of visitors. In recent decades, the tradition of informal access has been on the decline, meaning you’re likelier to hit locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs where you’re accustomed to hiking, hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.
Access to the millions of acres of public land that we all share can no longer depend on informal agreements. The stakes are too high: In Utah and across the West, public lands make up the economic and cultural backbone of rural communities like Springdale, a small town on the border of Zion National Park.
This year, national park tourism supported 4,130 jobs, $95.6 million in labor income, $168 million in value added, and $327 million in economic output in nearby communities. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation economy generates 110,000 jobs and $12.3 billion in consumer spending in Utah alone, and a recent analysis from the National Park Service shows the system generates $40 billion in the U.S. economy annually.
Our thriving outdoor recreation economy depends on an open, connected, well-managed system of public lands. That’s why guaranteeing access to places like the Zion Narrows is critical to the stability of rural communities here in Utah, and around the West. At the same time, it’s not fair to expect private landowners to shoulder a tradition carried over from a bygone era, when so many other realities of life in the West have changed.
So we work with landowners across the country who want to transfer their property into public ownership, or permanently protect their land with conservation easements (legal agreements dictating how land can and can’t be used).
Some easements are written only to restrict activities that could hurt the environment, like development or road building. But other easements — like this week’s agreement at Simon Gulch, and a 2013 project at nearby Chamberlain Ranch — compensate landowners for guaranteeing public access to trails, trout streams, and scenic vistas on their property.
In both cases, the landowners are treated fairly, and everyone — including national park staff, the guides who make their livings leading trips into Zion’s wilderness, and all who dream of experiencing this spectacular hike — can breathe a little easier knowing they’ll never encounter a “No Trespassing” sign blocking access to the adventure of a lifetime.
I had the joy of visiting Zion over Thanksgiving this year, shortly after the first big snowfall of the season transformed the desert into a quiet winter wonderland. Everywhere we went, I overheard people from all around the globe marveling at our nation’s natural beauty, and the care Americans have taken to both protect our parks and welcome people to enjoy them.
Our public lands are the pride of our nation, and this week’s win at Zion is an important step toward making sure our national parks are stronger, healthier, and more accessible for all.
Diane Regas is president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.