So far, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks have managed to escape most of the serious ecological problems that plague some of America's other national parks, such as air and water pollution from nearby cities, adjacent mining, and extreme overcrowding (with its resultant air and noise pollution from automobiles). Still, there is the threat of air pollution from power plants across the Colorado Plateau, and the park service has concerns over how Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks can be best managed to both preserve their delicate ecosystems and produce a rewarding experience for park visitors.
Presently, visitors to both Zion and Bryce Canyon can still get away from humanity fairly easily by heading out onto park trails or into the backcountry, and they can still find relatively unspoiled areas there. To preserve these unspoiled areas and their ecosystems, increasing efforts are being made in both parks to make visitors understand the need for zero-impact visitation, or as close as people can get to zero-impact short of staying home. In most cases, people are getting the message and are doing their best to stay on trails, not pollute water or drop trash, and certainly not to disturb the parks' plants and animals. In addition, shuttle bus systems have been implemented at both parks to help relieve traffic congestion and parking problems.
One issue that is expected to take on more importance in the years to come -- and over which the National Park Service has little control -- is increasing development in nearby communities. Major hotels have been built just outside Zion; and some degradation to Bryce Canyon's delightful night sky is feared from continuing development just outside that park's entrance.
Meanwhile, within park boundaries the main issue -- both now and for the future -- is overcrowding, and how it affects the variety of habitats that support a vast array of plant and animal life. Officials of the National Park Service have taken the position that they do not want to limit the number of people who visit the parks, and have concluded that the problem isn't too many people, it's too many cars. So now we're seeing limitations and even outright bans on private motor vehicles in the parks, especially during their busiest seasons.
Visitation at many national parks, including Bryce Canyon, has seen ups and downs over the past 10 to 12 years. (An exception is Zion, which has generally seen annual increases.) However, the long-term trend is expected to be increasing visitation and park managers are rightly concerned about the future.
The issue of how the parks can handle an increasing number of visitors brings to mind the question of the entire philosophy of the National Park Service, which essentially is to accomplish two goals simultaneously -- preserve resources and promote visitor enjoyment. But which is more important: protecting the plants, animals, and geologic formations that make these parks the special places they are, or helping people enjoy these very same plants, animals, and geologic formations?
Essentially, the question is how far should parks go to accommodate their visitors -- the people who pay the entrance and user fees and in most cases the tax dollars that fund the parks -- and at what point does visitor impact become unacceptable? It's a tightrope for park managers and a debate both within and outside the park service that will not be settled soon, if ever.
The Return of the Bighorn Sheep
Prior to the 20th century, there were reports of significant numbers of desert Bighorns in the area now known as Zion National Park. However, the population gradually declined. This decline was due primarily to development of the land by settlers, who blocked access to water, planted crops, and brought in livestock that not only competed with the Bighorns for grazing land but also introduced diseases. Another problem for the Bighorns came with construction of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel in the 1920s, which effectively chopped the Bighorn's range in half. Park officials estimated that by the 1930s, there were about 25 Bighorns in the park, and, by the late 1950s, there were none left.
Reintroduction efforts began in the mid-1960s, although it was not until 1973 that a dozen desert Bighorns were captured in southern Nevada and brought to the park, where they were kept in an 80-acre enclosure. By 1976, there were 22 Bighorns, still trapped in the enclosure, and park service wildlife biologists decided to release 13, moving them by helicopter to an isolated canyon in the southeastern corner of the park. Unfortunately, by the next year only 4 of the 13 had survived in the wild (many were killed by mountain lions), and this part of the reintroduction effort was considered a failure. By 1978, the population of the Bighorns that remained in the enclosure had increased to 20, and they were released into the park. Although nine died over the course of the next year, this release was considered a success.
Today there are at least 65 Bighorns at Zion and sightings are fairly common. It appears that the herd is making a successful comeback, both in terms of reproduction and range expansion. Park officials believe the park could support at least twice as many desert Bighorns, but for the time being, there are no plans to introduce more from other areas, in part because of the fear that new animals would bring in new diseases.