Flashback: A National Park Service superintendent’s conference in the 1990s. The regional director called me out by name for contacting him to advise we were considering culling the deer herd in Zion Canyon due to over population and disease. The reason for singling me out was that he felt that decision was one that needed to made by the local manager — not by someone who was so distant from the actual situation on the ground.
That same regional director was the one who famously issue the statement, “Lower the damn flag” when another superintendent was wondering if it was appropriate to honor a local citizen who had died, someone who had devoted much of his life to supporting his park.
I heeded that advice when confronted with the increasing visitor demands at Zion which led to overcrowding, a diminished visitor experience and destruction of the park’s resources. I felt free to pursue avenues to address this problem, leading to the implementation of the park’s transportation system which has served as model for other parks within the National Park Service.
Fast forward to today. Visitation to Zion has increased to more than 4 million annually in recent years and the park has been working on managing these mushrooming numbers. With the advent of COVID, the park was closed for a period but was able to reopen using the shuttle system and implemented a ticket system to meet related health standards. This timed entry ticketing system reduced the crowding experienced in Zion Canyon in recent years.
The Department of the Interior recently removed social distance health standards on its public transit systems, resulting in elimination of the ticket system and a return of over crowding to Zion Canyon.
The park should be allowed to reinstitute a timed entry system, adjusted for non-COVID capacity, to provide for a larger number of visitors but also reduce the crowding and congestion presently being experienced. The park should not only be allowed to reintroduce this system, but also to explore other innovative efforts to provide a quality visitor experience and protect its natural and cultural resources.
The National Park Service has not had a director for the past four years. This lack of leadership has allowed political interference to influence the management of our parks. Their well-intentioned efforts have resulted in an over-ruling of best management practices for the parks.
The time has come for each park superintendent to be allowed to manage the park utilizing the extensive planning and operational experience available from within the National Park Service and from its partners. Let’s get a director confirmed by the U.S. Senate and return management of the parks to the National Park Service.
Donald A. Falvey, Lakewood, Colorado, was superintendent of Zion National Park from 1991 to 2000.