“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
— Yogi Berra
The national parks that stand within the borders of Utah are, for many, its pride and joy. Hundreds of thousands of acres that contain some of the most striking landscapes on earth, held in trust for all humanity by the government and the people of the United States.
Those parks draw millions of visitors every year, visitors who leave behind many millions of dollars in spending, which in turn support jobs and the local tax base. And that is certain to continue. Until it doesn’t.
Crowding in many national parks, particularly Zion National Park in southern Utah, is getting to the point that the visitor experience is being seriously degraded and the time is approaching when, instead of being a place of renewal and inspiration, Zion will become a place that people will avoid.
There is noise, long lines of cars, a build-up of trash and graffiti and other forms of vandalism that park rangers and managers just cannot keep up with. People get lost and have to be found. People occasionally fall and die.
There are, however, plans to better accommodate the 4 million-plus humans who come to Zion National Park each year.
Most of the focus of the plan put forward by park managers, Kane County, the Bureau of Land Management and the owners of private property near the park is on the park’s lesser seen east entrance. That’s the entry point for some 1 million park visitors annually, but offers little in the way of services or recreation other than providing a path to the park’s more developed south entrance and its visitor facilities.
Plans include a new east entrance visitors center and shuttle station, with new hotels and housing to be built nearby. All-electric shuttles would replace the park’s current fleet of propane-powered buses and could eventually follow a course leading all the way from Kanab in the east to Springdale to the south.
Some 40 miles of walking and biking paths would be created in and near the park’s east side, providing a needed alternative to the highly traveled trails elsewhere in the park.
Some crowd control measures may still be necessary, including a ticketing system for the hugely popular hiking trail at Angel’s Landing, which now at times resembles a New York subway station — except it smells better. But, overall, spreading the park’s visitors out in the way the plan envisions would go a long way to make the park as accessible as we all want it to be and avoid any need to winnow down the number of visitors with higher fees or hard-to-get permits.
Analysts from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute have crunched the numbers and concluded that the proposed development of the east entrance would create hundreds of jobs, bring in millions in earnings and better serve all those visitors who might have been thinking about going somewhere else next year.
Funding for the $15 million visitor’s center has been fronted by the state’s Community Impact Board and the first $150,000 toward the new trail system has come from a grant from the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation. County officials figure increased property tax revenue from new lodges and housing will pay for other improvements.
It is a model that could be replicated at the edges of other crowded national parks, in Utah and elsewhere, though it will need to be carefully managed so that, as much as possible, the human improvements to national parks won’t leave them looking like something other than national parks.
If more money is needed, both the Utah Legislature and Congress should be willing to pony up. Both levels of government should stop fighting over who rightly owns the property and stop threatening lawsuits over, among other things, President Joe Biden’s recent restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Utah’s elected leaders will never sue or bully Congress into relinquishing the nation’s claim to national parks, national recreation areas, national forests and national monuments. But if we show we care about those lands, we might shame all those other senators and representatives into seeing that all those lands deserve more attention, and support, than might be forthcoming from an uncaring absentee landlord.