Zion National Park is now the third most visited National Park in the United States, bringing in 4.5 million visitors a year – an increase of 60 percent of visitation over the past three years.
Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Tourism Office, says tourism is a huge industry for Utah so the office is tasked with finding ways to promote the state. One reason people from outside of Utah and the United States are coming here may be the result of their media campaign, Experience The Mighty 5.
Varela says the 2013 television, billboard and magazine ad campaign helped Utah become known worldwide for its red rock.
“It was a major game-changer for Utah tourism," she said. "It put us on the world map in a way that actually exceeded everybody’s expectations. On the one hand, it’s wonderful because we now have a signature in the world as being the most spectacular red rock country on earth. It also has created challenges.”
Although tourism benefits the economy, bringing money into communities - like Moab, Springdale and Torrey - more people in parks mean more chances for things to go wrong.
“So you have the type of graffiti where somebody either takes paint or etches into a bathroom wall, we’re seeing that," said Alyssa Baltrus, a spokesperson for Zion National Park. "We’re also seeing graffiti on the rock. So people etching into rocks or using mud to create different pictures or handprints and that sort of thing. It seems like a small percentage of people that really want to cause damage. But when you look at for a decade we were at about 2.8-2.9 visitors, and in the past three years, we’ve went up to 4.5 million. Even if it’s just one percent, that one percent is getting bigger and bigger. So we’re definitely seeing more impact at Zion.”
“There are a lot of clear and present challenges and threats to the national parks in the southwest," said David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "In some ways, I think about the challenges as being sometimes a death by a thousand cuts. There are so many different forces and factors that are challenging and compromising some of our parks.”
Some of those forces and challenges are limited federal funding and park service policy. Nimkin says it is widely known, for example, that roads in Zion National Park need major repair work. But, that’s not what the National Park Service decided to repair first.
Instead, the agency will consider repairing the park's front entrance near Springdale where the traffic line can run more than a mile long.
“The front entrance has been needed for years," said Baltrus. "So even when we were at 2.9 million visitors per year we still were having issues at that front gate. So this will help, really, with pulling people in a little bit faster."
But, Baltrus adds, entrance enhancements won't resolve all of the overcrowding problems in the park.
"So Zion is under a visitor-use management planning process," she said, "where we’re trying to figure out how many people can comfortably fit in Zion without causing resource damage and without feeling overcrowded.”
Park officials are also working to reopen multiple trails damaged, not by visitors to the park, but by Mother Nature. The popular Angels Landing trail is off limits. Hidden Canyon, Kayenta and Upper Emerald Pools trails are closed because of a series of rock slides and falls.
“So the Angels Landing trail," Baltrus said, "the storm that washed out the 20-foot section of trail and also the retaining wall also destroyed a bunch of check dams, which were built over 100 years ago, and it protected that trail. We’ve gone in and we’ve rebuilt the check dams. We brought up literally 90 cubic yards of rock to build these four check dams. And now we’re starting to create a bridge that will go over the opening. So my hope is that it is open mid to late September. And as long as the weather holds, and so far we’re right on schedule, that we should be able to open it in just a couple weeks. It’s not the biggest repair, but it’s probably the most important for most visitors.”
To help manage travel through the park, propane shuttle buses were introduced 20 years ago, but Baltrus says the fleet needs to be replaced.
“The replacement of the shuttles is a huge project," she said. "We’re looking at needing about $27 million to fully replace the fleet. We’re probably going to do a few shuttles at a time. So we are testing an electric shuttle this week and we tested one for about a month last year. And we are going to see if this electric shuttle can work at Zion.”
Conservationist Nimkin worries future visitors to this and other parks will need to alter their expectations as the experience they hoped for could be very different from what it has been for visitors in the past.
“I think sometimes with the constant of visitation and the impact of climate change," he said, "the kinds of experiences at our national parks that we have come to enjoy, and perhaps we might’ve enjoyed as children, or our parents may have enjoyed, may not be the kinds of experiences that our grandchildren, or even our children, will enjoy.”
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