The controversy has all the makings of a classic Western movie, which is appropriate since it is about a proposed movie theater at the entrance to Zion National Park.
A shootout looms. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, is gathering his gang of Democratic guns. They are set to warn theater developers to get out of town, or at least away from Zion.Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is considering whether to side with developers and against his longtime arch-enemy Owens. All are claiming they wear the white hats. And the spectacular scenery of Zion is the backdrop.
Although Zion is in Hansen's district, Owens jumped into the controversy this week about whether an indoor giant-screen theater (which would show a film about Zion to tourists), an 80-room hotel and a 275-space parking lot should be allowed on private land at the entrance to the park and in sight of its Watchman Campground.
Owens - who is on a subcommittee that oversees national parks - is circulating a letter among members of the House Interior Committee seeking signatures to essentially warn the theater developer, World Odyssey Inc., to get away from Zion or face their wrath.
"Even with careful architectural design, it is clear that a development of this scale will unavoidably intrude on the majestic scenery of one of our nation's most treasured national parks," the letter says.
"As members of the House Interior Committee, we find these impacts unacceptable and are committed to taking whatever actions are necessary to prevent them."
Only Rep. Mel Levine, D-Calif., has signed so far - and he suggested such a letter after being outraged by a front-page New York Times story about the theater earlier this week. Also, Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., said he would sign if its tone is softened a bit, according to Owens' press secretary, Art Kingdom.
Owens and other Democrats expected to sign the letter aren't totally opposed to the idea of a theater in the general area, though.
"We would be happy to work with you in finding an alternate site in the town of Springdale, and will also look at the possibility of establishing a shuttle system from Springdale to the park to protect this and other resource values," the letter says.
The Democrats said putting the theater in Springdale may better help the town's economy anyway. And they offered to help purchase the private land and add it to the national park.
Twenty national environmental groups earlier this month urged the federal government to buy the 12 acre-site for $500,000. But Steve Heaton, one of five partners who own the land, said that is 50 percent less than what they paid for it in 1984 - and they have since built a grocery store and two other buildings there.
Meanwhile, Hansen - who is also a member of the House Interior Committee - is upset that Owens is dabbling in his district. They have fought about that plenty in recent years on such topics as wilderness (where Owens jumped into Hansen's district) and Fort Douglas (where Hansen jumped into Owens' in retaliation).
"Frankly, it irritates me a little bit. I don't know why he does it, except for his extreme environmental views," Hansen said. "I wish he would have called me on it first. He has a reputation of jumping into other people's districts without consideration."
Hansen added, "We have been working on this issue for two years. . . . We have volumes of information on this. We're waiting to see what kind of architecture the developers propose."
Two weeks ago when asked by the Deseret News about his stand on the Zion theater, he said he personally was unfamiliar with the issue and would check what his staff had done. Hansen said this week he has worked for years to solve traffic congestion in the park and worked with Springdale and Zion officials about numerous park concerns.
Hansen said the large parking lot for the theater could be a staging area for shuttles into the park to relieve traffic congestion. He requested in a hearing on Thursday that the National Park Service be given funds to start such a shuttle.
Meanwhile, Heaton said he and other landowners are no longer interested in selling to the government - which he said they once explored - and are committed to their partnership with World Odyssey for the new theater.
And Keith Merrill - the production manager for World Odyssey, who is a native Utahn and an Oscar-winning director - has told the Deseret News that the project would be environmentally sensitive and that a giant-screen movie about Zion would add to visitors' enjoyment.