Zion National Park overcrowding
Emerald Pools Bridge in Zion National Park, photo: Don Graham / CC BY-SA 2.0

Zion National Park is in the process of holding a series of local public meetings to discuss overcrowding and what to do about it.

I am here to say that Zion and other National Park sites will never meaningfully address carrying capacity.


Inherently psychotic with its dual missions of preservation and visitor use, the National Park Service constantly complains of being “loved to death” while at the same time plaintively blathers for money to consistently increase the footprint of services to accommodate more, using outdated and masturbatory programs like the Frankenstein biological/social science-based Visitor Experience and Resources Protection model as justification.

Zion National Park overcrowding
Zion National Park Travel Poster, 1938

Politically, the national, state, and local politicians always squeal like stuck pigs on behalf of their tourism councils and Chambers of Commerce. One just need look at how the BLM is dealing with permitting for the overcrowded Wave on the Arizona Strip, whereby local businesses oppose both online registration and printing of permits, complaining that they depend on duped lottery hopefuls who must show up in person in Kanab on the day it is held, most of whom never get a permit and must then find something else to do. How stupid is that?

How can you address overcrowding when even current ethically and Equal Opportunity (diversity and sexual harassment) embattled NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis doesn’t think overcrowding is an issue? From Travel & Leisure:

Zion National Park overcrowding
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the only real significant impact brought on by public use is an experiential one. In other words, concerns about crowds. I do think that there needs to be a range of quality experiences and that public use needs to be managed. But to be blunt, I worry a lot more about apathy than overuse.”

As a former NPS manager who sat alongside many like Director Jarvis and jerked in the same delusional circles, I have some suggestions that Zion National Park can implement to deal with park overuse:

—Do not look for money you don’t need by selling the naming rights to park buildings to corporate interests. Not only does Zion not need Zion’s Bank or Deseret Management Corporation identified with it, but as with recreation fees you will have an insatiable appetite for continued destruction.

—Although you cannot legally say as much, the number of parking lots for cars will largely determine the number of visitors at your park. Build only bathrooms, and invest in sewage treatment facilities. Do not increase the size of visitor centers or other of these type of similar facilities. Do not increase your infrastructure footprint.

—Join the rest of the civilized world and require backcountry users, climbers, canyoneers, day hikers, or anyone outside of designated high-use “Class 1 and 2” zones to have Search and Rescue (SAR) insurance. The cost is minimal and can be purchased for the length of the visitor’s trip.

—Create a day-use permitting system for “Class 3” zones complete with entry quotas during the high-use season. These could be obtained online, include the option for SAR insurance, and be presented upon request.

Zion National Park overcrowding
Zion National Park Visitor Shuttle

If by “overcrowding” the NPS refers to overuse that has and continues to cause resource destruction, it needs to get real about carrying capacity and develop meaningful quotas based on biological science instead of cowering under political assault and using shoddy social science to justify doing the wrong thing. Do not encourage a neverending supply of corporate funding to develop a larger infrastructure footprint to “serve” the visitor.

If by “overcrowding” the NPS refers to the high cost of SAR — which is significant to both the NPS and local sheriff departments — it needs to get real, start requiring insurance, and recoup the costs. Having known two winners of the Harry Yount Award (the highest award offered to park rangers) and countless chief rangers responsible for SAR and law enforcement services, depressingly none are in favor of SAR insurance, believing that somehow people will be reluctant to call them if they know if there will be a cost. My retort has always been that we instead end up with freeloaders and constant SAR complaints for money.

So, Zion and the NPS, you can complain as much as you like about the tragedy of the commons, but until your agency and its leaders stop being beholden to stuck pigs and institute what biological and social science tells you — which is to stop freeloaders, set quotas, and shut the gates — you are only wasting taxpayer monies as well as your time, breath, and credibility.

Zion National Park is holding public meetings to discuss increasing park visitation and its effects. All meetings run from 5 to 7 p.m.:

—May 23, Canyon Community Center, Springdale.

—May 24, SUU Sharwan Smith Student Center, Cedar City.

—May 25, Dixie Center, St. George.

—May 26, Kanab City Library, Kanab.


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  1. Really Zinda? Let’s provide insurance companies with yet another revenue stream and make a trip to our parks exorbitantly expensive for the average person so that a backcountry experience will be reserved for the wealthy.

    If you’re looking for a way to gouge visitors, charge for lavatory use and charge for parking. Those accommodations represent significant costs and environmental impacts which couldn’t compare to the occasional SAR.

    Requiring insurance for back country experiences will definitely result in an avoidance of the current permit system and an increase in serious injuries.

  2. VERP was never meant to justify more visitors, just the opposite…it was designed to tell managers where to draw the line and defend them when they did. Zinda, you really don’t know what you are writing about in that realm. However, you are spot on that the NPS, and its current director in particular is not about to bite the bullet on carrying capacity

    • VERP was meant to develop ‘indicators’ of change (like Crypto) and then develop mitigation measures.

      In the 90s, I was a part of helping to impliment VERP in parks I worked – along with GPRA.

      It was never used as intended, NPS fear of indicator validity and taking appropriate actions (i.e. closing areas, activitites) if they were legally challenged.

      That – and the politics of quotas.

      Where is VETP now? Morphed into yet another program that still will not result in closures or capacities.

      In short, I was there and in my piece I glossed VERP over with rhetoric. I should have been more serious.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. I appreciate your suggestions. For the record, DSU Life Skills Club held public forum (market research meetings) at the Canyon Community Center monthly from October 2015 -February 2016. Our research contradicts what you’re claiming is impossible. Those of us in attendance had the privilege to hear Former mayor Louise Excell, current Mayor Stan Smith, and Zion park Superintendent Bradybaugh & assistant J Burns discuss the history, current strategic plans in place (water systems- conservation ), and how the park plans to address Parking & Capacity issues. How wonderful that they are holding these meetings- honoring the concerns of Springdale residents and business owners will preserve Zion. I’m confident efforts will be ongoing- seeing that strengthening Zion with what can be done is the primary focus.

    In honor of the natives, residents/families and visitors alike seeking refuge in the towering canyon walls of Zion- please try to remember what it is you are defending. One catches more flies with honey than vinegar. Attitude is everything. By framing the readers perspective that the park employees “Stop freeloaders, set quotas and shut the gates”… Yeah you’re right. That’s one way to see it. Maybe stop talking and start listening to what officials really are working on regarding capacity and you’ll see the true picture of what is happening in Zion.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting!

      As I say, I worked for the NPS in alongside people like Dir. Jarvis for over a decade in management. I’ve been ‘inside,” including the much talked about overcrowded Yosemite. I continue my work on the ‘outside’ where I, as Jarvis told me years ago, am perhaps more effective at pressuring the NPS for change.

      My thought on your thoughts is don’t be capitvated by a single meeting you attended or by the Agency itself. Dig deeper into the socio-eco-political environment. Ask some very direct questions.

      Did you directly ask any of the presenters if there was ever a day Zion would close the gates to protect natural and/or cultural resources? Carrying capacity of Zion? What is the number?

      Anywho, I’m happy DSU is talking. Good stuff. Keep up the good stuff.

  4. I appreciate your comments. For all that the NPS talks about our primary mission being preserving for future generations, if anyone is serious about that being true, we must acknowledge that there a point when the number of visitors has a negative impact on the long term preservation. Visitation cannot expand forever. However, there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to acknowledge that as a fact. If anything, the NPS is more subject to politics than ever and with that reality, there seems to be a willingness to welcome more and more visitors, satisfy commercial interests and, pretend we are balancing preservation and public use. Thanks again for your insightful comments.

  5. I really appreciated your article. Living within 9 miles of the Park entrance I experience first hand the over crowding, the littering and the never ending road noise. Just last week I tried to cut through Zion to go to Kanab to do volunteer work. Normally that would cut off 45 minutes from going through Pipe Springs. This was not the case. At 9 am it took 45 minutes to get through the gate,then another 30 at the tunnel. (Before anyone goes all whiny about me cutting through the Park, residents can get a pass for just that purpose.)
    This is the new normal. December 26th there were people yelling and screaming at each other at Temple of Sinewava parking area just over parking spots. The advertising companies continue to use a picture of a lone person hiking up the narrows. This is basically false advertising.
    I also used to volunteer at Zion. I found it fun and interesting. That was in 2010-2012. Because of the crowds, I won’t even go into Springdale now, much less the Park.
    Adding more parking and more hotels in Springdale solves nothing. It just means that the business owners will continue reap record profits while whining to State and Federal governments that they need more space.
    In several areas of the country the search and rescue teams are starting to bill for their services. There is even insurance available to pay for the rescuers services. This should be required in all National Parks. Some visitors seem to think their skills are much better than they really are.
    Until they raise entrance fees, stop having free days, limit the number of entrants, the Park and canyon residents will continue to suffer.

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