State leaders, local stakeholders sound off on a potential reservation system for Zion

ST. GEORGE — Utah’s entire congressional delegation of two senators and four representatives have joined together to oppose a reservation system for visitors wanting to enter Zion National Park.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chris Stewart (R-UT), John Curtis (R-UT), and Ben McAdams (D-UT) sent a joint letter to United States Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt that stated:

The National Park Service (NPS) is moving forward with a capacity study that could mandate a reservation system for Zion National Park (ZNP). We write to reiterate our strong opposition to any reservation system and instead request that NPS give ample consideration to locally-driven alternative solutions that preserve visitor access and enjoyment.

Zion National Park is the fourth-most visited national park in the country and a pillar of Utah’s tourism economy, the letter said.

In the letter, Utah’s senators and representatives said that if the capacity study indicated a need to implement a reservation system, “it would likely result in reduced visitation and negative economic impacts.”

The line forming at the Grotto to hike Angels Landing was hours long over Memorial Day weekend, Zion National Park, May 25, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

A full copy of the letter to Bernhardt can be read here.

Visitation and capacity

According to information from the National Park Service, Zion National Park received roughly 4.5 million visitors for the 2019 year-to-date calendar.

Many of those visitors came during the summer season with May through September recording about 500,000 visitors per month.

During the park’s busiest weekend, Memorial Day weekend, park officials experimented with a new queue location to help manage overcrowding on Zion’s popular Angel’s Landing Trail. Visitors arriving that weekend to take in the social-media-famous hike found hours-long waits just to access the trail.

Visitation is already up in 2020. January saw a 25% increase of visitors over the same month last year with nearly 126,000 visitors, Zion Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in his report to the Springdale City Council.

And the park is welcoming thousands of visitors over the three-day President’s Day weekend.

As they look to ways to better understand the park’s capacity as well as visitor disbursement, data collection is underway – taking information from park entrance stations, trailheads and shuttle stops. Those shuttle stops will especially provide important data on how the park moves visitors to and from recreation sites, Bradybaugh said.

The park is working with several different entities ,including students from Dixie Technical College and Dixie State University, to help collect and analyze data that determines when the park is at capacity as well as where park visitors are dispersing.

Park officials are also working with state and local officials to study the data and come up with different proposals, Bradybaugh said.

“A lot of this is in development as we speak,” Bradybaugh said. “There’s a lot going on … a lot.”

Local stakeholders sound off

While capacity data collection continues in the park, local residents and stakeholders in the tourism industry expressed their own worries over a possible reservation system, saying that the system would be devastating to the economy.

“The impact would be an absolute devastation,” Cody Adent, vice president and chief financial officer of Vibrant Management said.

Among other things, Vibrant Management manages the Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens located in Springdale near the entrance to Zion, Watchman Villas and the Springdale Visitor Center.

The queue to hike Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

The group also created and organizes the Southern Utah Tourism summit, which was designed to bring the Southern Utah tourism community together to create dialog about how to effectively handle the high volume of visitation the area receives while elevating the visitor experience.

If every one of the 4.5 million visitors in the park last year spent $100 – a very conservative estimate, Adent said – and a reservation system was implemented that cut park visitation, it could potentially remove hundreds of millions from the economy.

“That is a blow that we couldn’t afford,” Adent said.

And, Adent said, it would have a trickle-down effect. It might start with businesses that cater directly to tourism but it would also affect lending and rental institutions who count on payments from the tourism businesses occupying their buildings.

It would affect the service industry job market, likely shut down tour bus operators nearly entirely and eventually impact the majority of Southern Utah, Adent said.

Jim Frandsen, general manager of Zion Outfitter, a local gear rental and retail shop located just outside the park’s pedestrian entrance, said that anyone who has an interest in the prosperity of Southern Utah should be against a reservation system.

“It will kill us,” Frandsen said of his business. “It would be pretty brutal for the whole area.”

Economy aside, implementing a visitor reservation system would discriminate toward people with lesser means who might not be able to access a digitized reservation system as easily, he said.

“From our perspective, the national parks are for everybody,” Frandsen said, adding that one of the really special things about national parks is that no matter who you are or where you come from, you belong in the parks.

“It just isn’t right to keep people away from the national park,” Frandsen said.

Frandsen said that while a reservation system might benefit, or at least not deter, foreign travelers who already have to plan their trips in advance, it would severely limit access for locals who would also need a reservation to get in.

Mitigate crowds and elevate the visitor experience

Rather than institute a reservation system, the congressional delegation in the letter urged the Department of the Interior to look to state and local leaders to find solutions that will preserve access to Zion National Park while also enhancing the visitor experience.

When speaking about the visitor experience, Kevin Lewis, director of tourism for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, said that he believes it starts well before a guest enters the park.

“When we start to look at solution,s it’s a little bit dangerous to just consider what happens inside the park,” Lewis said. “We need to consider all of the elements of the visitor journey.”

Stock image of Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, St. George News

Those elements include the visitor’s planning process and expectations of their Zion experience.

Lewis believes that one way to help enhance visitor experiences is through technology-driven information.

To that end, Greater Zion is developing an app that would take data gathered at park entrances, shuttle stops and trailheads that would help provide accurate monitoring of peak times and seasons and be able to disseminate it to users across the nation.

It is all about educating visitors and giving them tools that can be used throughout their entire journey so they can decide what kind of experience they want to have, Lewis said.

While not technology-driven, Frandsen also believes that educating guests is critical to elevating their experience, whether it is helping visitors know when to enter the park and do certain hikes, or when to opt for another activity outside the park.

The app will also contain information on sites outside of Zion National Park – information on state parks, campgrounds and alternate trails, for example – that Lewis said would help disperse visitors naturally rather than having them be essentially kept out of the national park by a determined capacity number.

“What scares me when we start talking about reservations is that we lock people out, and we don’t want to do that,” Lewis said.

Adent agrees, saying that the park doesn’t have a capacity problem, it has a dispersement problem.

“We have to stop taking the low hanging fruit,” Adent said, speaking specifically of how some sites like Angel’s Landing have been over-marketed while there are other parts of Zion – the east side for example – that can still offer visitors an amazing Zion experience.

Steps are being taken to enhance the east entrance, including plans for a visitor hub just outside the park, which Adent feels will be an important addition for tourists entering from that side so that they don’t have to travel all the way through the park to the existing visitor center in the main canyon and start their journey in the congestion.

In 2019, Zion National Park saw the closure of many popular hiking trails due to natural causes, Lewis said, and at least three of the trails – Weeping Rock, Observation Point/East Rim from the canyon floor and Hidden Canyon – are closed indefinitely.

While park officials have not noticed a decrease in visitation due directly to those closures, they have felt a dispersement of the visitation to trails which remain open, officials told St. George News in a previous report.

As the park service and state and local leaders look to mitigate crowds, Lewis said it is also important to look for longterm solutions inside the park.

Instead of looking only at capacity numbers, Lewis hopes that there will be open dialogue about future solutions, including the possibility of adding new trails.

“The park’s a big place still. It seems like we need long term strategies because there is going to be growth … are there places in the park where we could put additional trails?” Lewis said.

That said, both Lewis and Frandsen said that while there are crowds, most people, even on the busiest days, are still having incredible Zion experiences.

Visitors, particularly those coming from outside the state, expect a certain level of popularity, Lewis said, but it doesn’t detract from their visit.

Frandsen echoed Lewis saying that the consensus he gets from the thousands of tourists who cross Zion Outfitter’s threshold is that visiting Zion is an amazing opportunity.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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