The whole purpose of this plan is to protect and enhance the values for which made them eligible for designation as wild and scenic rivers. —Kezia Nielsen
SALT LAKE CITY — The National Park Service may change the way visitors enjoy Zion National Park, all in the interest of protecting the Virgin River and the areas around it.
A new management plan for portions of the river and its tributaries, which were designated as "wild and scenic" by Congress back in 2009, has been completed and now Park Service officials want the public to weigh in on the plan. "There could be a lot of things that happen, but they are not imminent," Kezia Nielsen, an environmental resource protection specialist with the National Park Service, said. "The whole purpose of this plan is to protect and enhance the values for which made them eligible for designation as wild and scenic rivers."
The plan details the water quality, wildlife, cultural resources and recreational values of the river segments and the impacts the three varying alternatives might have.
The first approach would be to continue management of the corridor as is. The second alternative would implement many restrictions to protect resources, and the third alternative seeks a balance between protection and visitor access.
"Each of the river segments has a carrying capacity," Nielsen said, describing the point at which protection of those values would be compromised.
Nielsen said the plan does not propose any firm limitations on visitors either to Zion National Park or the backcountry, but adjustments could be made in the future.
Part of the plan tries to answer at what point the visitor experience starts to degrade because of crowding.
Zion National Park is the most frequented of Utah's five national parks and has seen its visitation steadily increase over the years. In 2012, nearly 3 million people visited the park. While permits for both day and overnight use are required in the backcountry, no permits are issued for Zion Canyon.
With the implementation of a shuttle system in 2000, getting around the park is more convenient and parking can be less of a hassle. But the plan notes that the ability to move more people around more efficiently has resulted in some startling numbers. In a one-day period, the shuttle carried more than 19,000 people — eclipsing the number or ridership of most light-rail lines in the United States.
Nielsen said crowds can diminish the park experience for some.
Surveys done in 2002 found that 81 percent of people who came to the park rated the opportunity to find solitude as "very important."
"We think people should be able to experience the sights and sounds of nature while out on a National Park Service trail," she said. "If you hike two miles to a spot, you want to be able to enjoy it."
The park service will embark on new surveys and do visitor counts to augment the plan, gauging visitors' opinions over the park, crowding, visitor services, the river segments and trails.
Management of the trail system is an important component to protecting the river corridors because the potential degradation that comes with too many visitors, Nielsen said.
Open houses have been scheduled to detail the draft plan and the agency's preferred management approach. Meetings, all at 6 p.m., are Tuesday at the Dixie Center, 1835 Convention Center Drive, St. George; Wednesday at the Canyon Community Center, 126 Lion Blvd., Springdale; and Thursday at the University Park Marriott, 480 Wakara Way.