Crowds force Zion to consider park entrance overhaul
Visitors quickly see why Zion National Park gets its name from the Hebrew word for refuge. Video shot by Pat Shannahan, the Arizona Republic.
A spike in the number of visitors over the past several years has been pushing long lines of cars outside of Zion National Park’s south entrance and into the neighboring community of Springdale.
This week, park officials put forward a plan to alleviate some of the congestion, proposing to move the park’s iconic main entrance sign and add new lanes to accommodate more vehicles.
The proposal, outlined in a draft environmental assessment filed on Monday, describes making the changes in conjunction with a separate project planned by state transportation managers along state Route 9 as it leads into the park.
"Implementation of the proposed project would simultaneously enhance visitor safety, help mitigate factors contributing to vehicle congestion experienced in the immediate area, and expand cultural resource protection measures," according to the assessment.
Moving the iconic stone pylons and south entrance sign, which have greeted visitors to the park’s main canyon since the 1930s, requires an environmental assessment. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, it has become a prominent park feature often used as a backdrop for visitor photographs.
But limited parking and a lack of space between the monument sign and the lines of backed-up vehicles has created a number of problems, according to the assessment. Many people stop at the base of the monument to take in the views and take photos.
"This behavior hazardously positions pedestrians directly in the path of vehicular traffic, which increases the probability of a low speed collision," according to the assessment.
Under the new plan, the sign would be moved 28 feet to the east and have a monument plaza built around it, with better access to parking and a pedestrian-friendly access area eliminating some of the conflicts.
Officials used a laser scanner to capture 3D images of the sign late last year as part of a larger project to document iconic parts of the park.
Park officials said the project would be done in conjunction with the state project outside the park to keep visitors from having to deal with traffic delays across two separate projects. The Utah Department of Transportation is planning to start this year on resurfacing and other improvements along SR-9 from the south park entrance eastward through Springdale and into nearby Rockville.
The assessment estimates the Zion portion of the project would take 60 to 90 days to complete.
The changes would be part of a larger effort to keep up with the fast-growing numbers of visitors.
More than 540,000 visitors had been counted at the park through March, putting it on pace to keep up with last year’s park record for total visitors. Nearly 4.3 million were counted in 2016, a 17 percent increase over the previous year’s record of 3.6 million, Since 2010, Zion has gone from 2.67 million visitors to 4.30 million., and it now ranks as the 5th-most visited in the U.S.
Park officials, operating on budgets that have barely grown in years, report widespread issues keeping up with repair and maintenance. Managers are working to develop a new visitor use management plan for the park, with some proposals including caps on the number of visitors allowed.
In a presentation before the Washington County Commission late last year, Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh described problems keeping up with demands for parking, trail maintenance and basics like trash pickup.
The release of the draft assessment triggers a public review and comment period scheduled to last through May 17.
There are two formal opportunities to comment under park rules, with those interested able to review and comment on the draft during this period, and then again following the release of the final environmental assessment. More information is available online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov.
Review and comment
Residents interested in the proposal to reconfigure Zion National Park’s south entrance can participate online via https://parkplanning.nps.gov, with physical copies of the draft environmental assessment available at the Zion Human History Museum. Comments can be submitted online or through the mail by writing to:
Superintendent, Zion National Park
ATTN: South Entrance Monument Reconfiguration EA
1 Zion Park Blvd.
State Route 9
Springdale, UT 84767