SALT LAKE CITY — A 144-mile stretch of the Virgin River can now run with federal protections designed to preserve its "wild and scenic" characteristics.
The formal adoption of the Virgin River Comprehensive Management Plan Thursday solidifies new strategies and practices for ensuring the river retains its free-flowing condition and puts in play steps to enhance its quality on its route through Zion National Park.
Ultimately, visitors to the park may see improvements along hiking trails, development of more defined trails to reduce visitor encroachment, and more interpretative and educational signage extolling the river's benefit to the national park.
"I think their plan is a competent plan," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. "The wild and scenic designation is really a great management tool. It can be used to protect rivers and give them a better, more reliable future."
The new plan for portions of the Virgin River and its tributaries, which were designated as "wild and scenic" by Congress back in 2009, was completed in August and released for public comment.
After a review of the comments and options for management approaches, the National Park Service settled on an action plan that embraces resource protection but still allows public access unless there is a clear need for limits.
"We hope to protect these resources so visitors can enjoy them into the future," said Kezia Nielsen, park spokeswoman. "That really is the purpose of this kind of strategic planning."
Zion National Park is the most frequented of Utah's five national parks and has seen its visitation steadily increase. 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.
Components of the plan adopted Thursday including increasing the presence of National Park Service rangers in high-use areas such as the Narrows and timing the park's shuttle service to reduce overcrowding in that area.
The plan notes that the implementation of the shuttle system 14 years ago has meant that moving people around the park is easier, but patronage of the transportation system has produced some dramatic numbers. A one-day period had ridership of 19,000 people — more than the daily ridership of most light-rail lines in the United States.
Park officials say the challenge has been to accommodate the degree of interest in Zion National Park and remain protective of its resources at the same time.
This plan to safeguard the river means the park service will pay more attention to reducing or managing visitor-created trails and it may also consider day use limits, or permits, for both Taylor and La Verkin creeks, tributaries to the Virgin.
The park service may also impose visitor limits at the Upper Emerald Pools and evaluate the permit renewal for horseback riding in the area of the North Fork of the Virgin River below the Temple of Sinawava. The plan does not impact the existing wilderness permit system or group limits.
Frankel said the benefits afforded by the Virgin River management strategy underscores the need for greater protections for Utah rivers.
Up until its designation in 2009, Utah was one of 10 states in the country that lacked any "wild and scenic" rivers.
"It is sad that it has taken 40 years-plus to have our first wild and scenic river when some states have 30," he said. "We have the Green, the Colorado, the San Rafael and the Price. These are beautiful rivers that support a multibillion-dollar recreation economy."
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