Kieth Merrill, the head of production for a California movie company that wants to build a huge-screen theater next door to Zion National Park, says the project will improve the scenery and enhance the park experience.

Merrill, a Utah native who is production chief for World Odyssey Inc. of Los Altos, Calif., disputed a claim by the National Parks and Conservation Association that the new theater's location would be a detriment to the park.In an interview published Monday, Terri Martin of the conservation association said she was appalled at the proposed location, which is on private land just outside the park's southern entrance station. It would be within view of the park's Watchman Campground, said Martin, who is based in Salt Lake City.

Martin's group, one of the oldest conservation organizations in the United States, is advocating that World Odyssey consider a different site. The group would have no objection to building the theater complex on land in nearby Springdale, Washington County.

"We are and have been extremely sensitive to environmental issues," Merrill said in a telephone interview. He is a producer and director who has filmed many movies in Utah and won an Academy Award for "The Great American Cowboy" in 1974.

The company's theater project is intended to extend the experience of the national parks, he said. The effort is "based upon a real affection" for the parks.

Huge-screen films - which are like the IMAX system, but do not use the patented IMAX process - offer a simulacrum of the park experience to the handicapped, seniors and others unable to explore rugged natural areas, such as parts of Zion. Because some tourists may view the park from inside the theater instead of by hiking Zion's trails, the theater may reduce visits, Merrill said.

Crowding, especially vehicle congestion, is such a serious problem at Zion that Martin believes a shuttle-bus system should take visitors into the park. In fact, she thinks a World Odyssey theater in Springdale could be tied to the system, helping both park and company.

Merrill isn't adamantly against the suggestion that the theater could be built in Springdale. But he says the ball is in the conservation association's court to prove that the land is available.

"I listened carefully to all of her proposals for alternate sites," he said. "It's very easy when you're against something to rather randomly say, `What about over there? That'll work just as well.' "

The land mentioned by Martin is partly in private ownership and partly owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which leases it to the town of Springdale. The leasing is under a federal act that allows recreation or other public purposes on BLM land.

Merrill said World Odyssey agreed to consider moving the project with a caveat: the conservation association must take the initiative to actually put together a package that would make the property available to the company.

"We frankly don't feel that it's appropriate for us to have to assume the entire responsibility, both in time and dollars, to run an exhaustive feasibility study through rather complicated bureaucratic channels to just find out whether or not what they're proposing is feasible."

So far, he said, World Odyssey has spent two years and "a tremendous amount of money" in developing the project. "I'm amazed they've waited so long to raise any issues with us."

The company has discussed the project openly with people in Springdale, with the town council and with Zion National Park, he said. According to Merrill, that started as long as 18 months ago.

The parcel Martin mentioned has significant drawbacks in addition to the land ownership tangle, he said.

"We would have to do an analysis in terms of traffic, and our ability to make this project economic."

Merrill said private property rights are fundamental under the U.S. Constitution. Further, the theater plans have been modified several times to make the structure more environmentally sensitive and as compatible with the park as possible, according to him.

With a screen 58 feet high and 69 feet wide, that means part of the theater will be underground. "We're burying much of the facility and then replacing the natural landscape," he said.

Most of the theater will be blocked by a hill, so it won't be seen by drivers entering Zion, but it will be visible to those going out, Merrill said.

Although the property extends to within 50 yards of the campground, the nearest structure will be "at a considerable distance" - perhaps 150 or 200 yards from the campers. Extensive planting of trees and other vegetation should help block the theater, he believes.

"The thing they (environmentalists) have really not come to grips with is the extent to which we have redesigned our project to be environmentally sensitive," Merrill said.