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Zion National Park Planning To "Rehabilitate" Mount Carmel Highway


Zion National Park officials say it's time for the Mount Carmel Highway to be rehabilitated. Photo by Ken Lund via flickr.

Talk about ambitious. The folks at Zion National Park are planning to do the first substantial rehabilitation of the Mount Carmel Highway in nearly 80 years, something that will not be an overnight job.

Indeed, right now the crystal ball envisions a two-year project, as the work would involve rehabilitating, restoring, and resurfacing approximately 9 miles of road from Canyon Junction to the East Entrance (excluding the Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel).

True, this isn't a massive project like the ongoing rehab of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park or that of the General's Highway in Sequoia National Park. But if you've ever driven the Mount Carmel Highway in Zion, you know about its switchbacks, steep grades, and the beautiful stonework performed by the CCC crews way back when.

As might be expected, time and traffic have taken a decided toll on the red asphalt highway and now it's time to address the deterioration. With that in mind, Zion officials are embarking on an environmental assessment to determine the best approach.

The proposed project is planned for two years. The first year would focus on the road from Canyon Junction to the west entrance into the tunnel and is proposed for fall 2009. The second year would complete the project from the east entrance to the tunnel to the east park boundary and is proposed for fall 2011.

The public will have two opportunities to comment on this project: first during scoping (now), and again following the release of the EA. Park officials currently are in the scoping phase of this project and invite you to submit your comments. If you wish to comment, you can do so at this site or you can mail comments to Zion National Park, Zion Mt. Carmel Road Rehabilitation, Springdale, UT 84767.

Comments are being accepted until December 11, 2008.

For more information on this proposed project contact Kezia Nielsen, Environmental Protection Specialist, at (435) 772-0211 or visit the NPS planning website.


Please question the original intent all you want, but please consider the following:

The Yellowstone and Yosemite Park Act both specifically called for the preservation of "all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders," ultimately retained "in their natural condition".

Unfortunately, corruption within the early park system was not an unusual phenomenon. Acting as a "body of police, styled assistant superintendents" were just as inefficient as they were fraudulent. "Creatures of political favoritism," the
House Committee, Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, superintendents, unused to the services required of them, often "made merchandise of the treasures which they were appointed to preserve."

Pressure was exerted to change "preserve" to "conserve" in the Organic Act's text, and "unimpaired" was not further explained, although park administrators accepted "undeveloped" as unimpaired, but unfortunately, under pressure from railroad, hotel, and automobile groups, viewed land in the farthest reaches of the park as suitably undeveloped.

I'm holding in my hands a draft NPS management policy handed to me by Zion officials that states that "conservation is to be predominant. . . . the Act is explicit that enjoyment of park resources and values is to be allowed only to the extent that can be done without impairing those resources and values."

In the case of Zion, the construction and maintenance of roads clearly is an impairment on the resource and values of the park. (Consider, as one point, that Cottonwoods are not reproducing naturally due to channelization of the Virgin River. Also consider Zion's charter mandated the preservation of geological forces, and the maintenance of the road, most notably after a landslide naturally dammed the Virgin River, has interfered with that mandate.) Will not the repaving of this road, and its subsequent use, result in disruption to and destruction of threatened desert big horn sheep?

Also consider the recklessness at Zion when it came to road construction:

In the summer of 1958, after having made an inspection of the area [Kolob section], with attention given the prospect of a road into it, the western representative of the National Parks Association wrote a letter to the superintendent of the park, copies of which went to members of the Association's Board of Trustees. Referring to the proposed road [into the Kolob Canyons section], the representative said, "First it would destroy scenic qualities. Second, it would eliminate entirely the cloak of solitude that rests over the area now. Third, it would forever mar the sense of adventure one inevitably feels when he approaches the region. It would become just another 'accessible part of the park', and having been stripped of its greatest blessing, its wild character--a quality that sets it apart even from the masterpiece that is Zion Canyon--it would be reduced to comparative mediocrity. . . .I do not believe we should concern ourselves with making every vista, canyon, or natural feature accessible. We should work to make this mood of atmosphere available in its purest form. This atmosphere is the very essence of the national park idea."

It is time to recognize the undo influence of past interest groups on building roads in park and the present undo influence of current interest groups of maintaining said roads in parks.

It is time to start restoring national parks to that which they were intended. Arguments that funding will be cut if people can't access every nook and cranny are simply slippery slope arguments based on fear and propaganda.

I am under no illusion that Mr. Witworth, Zion's superintendent, will be any more likely to respond to my concerns about road re-construction at Zion than he was to respond about my concerns about Zion's repository of hazardous chemicals and junk in Oak Creek Canyon.

Here's a short excerpt about the project, which I find encouraging:

Pavement rehabilitation would likely involve in-place recycling of the existing deteriorated pavement, followed by an overlay of new asphalt paving. The new pavement would later be covered with a red cinder chip-seal.

In-place recycling of the existing pavement at least sounds like a good idea, and I'd certainly vote for continuing the use of the red cinder chip-seal. In this setting, that treatment helps reduce the visual intrusion of the pavement, and perhaps helps reinforce subconsciously the idea that people using this roadway are in a special place.

Kurt's original story above includes a link where you can make comments on the project to the park.

While this section pavement is truly a Road to Nowhere, as the "development" east of the tunnel along Hwy. 9 will verify, I'm as guilty as anybody of utilizing it as a pass-through to Bryce. While we can debate the merits of the original intent and whose doorstep to lay credit / blame upon, the current status of the roadway is inadequate to continue to serve its purpose, both relating to the overall condition and the size of the available pavement. But who in the early 20th C envisioned all the goofs parading around the country in their Ford Expeditions and Chevy Tahoes anyway?

Specific to this example, the Mount Carmel Road that is, I'm rather dubious that the overall visitation to Zion would suffer much of a decline should the tunnel be incapacitated for any reason. While definitely not convenient, other avenues exist to access the "main" southern entrance. And by far, the greatest tourist access is off I-15, not US 89, especially all those day-trippers from the Vegas saloons. Evidence that Springdale is a literal boom-town when compared to the entirety of the eastern pathway. So let's not play the panic card and correlate a drastic decline in revenue for Zion if indeed the highway were rerouted. A decline? Most certainly. Park closure? Not on your life.

That said, I personally don't favor removing existing roadways from any of the NPS units, but I, unlike SO many other contributors to this site, have no employment history with the park service, so maybe my opinion isn't worth the computer it's typed on. I most certainly do support limitation of expanding the network of roadways, preferably limiting expansion to ZERO. But unless there's a plan afoot to let nature reclaim, as She has done to so many of the old logging roads for example, then periodic roadway improvements are just as important within the system as they are without. Or should we start debating the merits of maintaining the Interstate and US Highway networks as well, as they too require the evil byproducts of the petroleum industry in order for us to maintain our mobility as a nation; bicycle, car, or cross-trainers be damned?

By the way, there are a few routes available to link Toroweep (or do you say Tuweep?) and the rims of the Grand Canyon to the other Utah parks that radiate southeast from the greater-St. George area. But they're most definitely NOT highways. Beautiful, scenic, kidney-bustin' backroads that themselves are as great an adventure as exploring the parks was intended to be, but we as a people have this notion that we should be able to get any and everywhere as quickly and conveniently as we can. It's our Divine right!!! How dare anyone inconvenience us by not paving every inch of the world so that we can use it, maybe once in a lifetime?

True indeed, the railroads exerted enormous pressure in the formative years of the National Park System to see that roads linked railheads to parks, that lodges be built so those passengers would have somewhere to sleep and eat once they reached the parks.

But I think the "original intent" as laid out by Frank can be questioned. Indeed, there was clear intent early on that vehicles be accommodated in the parks. Interior Secretary Franklin Lane saw to that when he outlined, on May 13, 1918, essentially how the National Park Service should operate. Along with stressing that the parks "must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations," Secretary Lane noted that roads, trails and other infrastructure should be installed with attention to complementing, not detracting from, the landscape.

Beyond that, he wrote that, "All outdoor sports which may be maintained consistently with the observation of the safeguards thrown around the national parks by law will be heartily indorsed (sic) and aided whenever possible. Mountain climbing, horseback riding, walking, motoring, swimming, boating, and fishing will ever be the favorite sports."

Even with that understood, though, it'd be hard to disagree that industrial tourism is a constant threat to the parks' landscape and, I think it can be argued in some quarters, to the national park experience. But what is the perfect national park experience? What should it be?

What would be a moderate approach to road construction/maintenance in the parks? Some would argue that already there's a bear minimum of roads and, at the same time, thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of wilderness or de facto wilderness in which one can escape asphalt and fumes. (Of course, there also are some roads, such as the existing Carbon River Road in Mount Rainier's northwestern corner, that nature has been trying to remove ever since it was built.)

Without roads such as the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Mount Carmel Road, and Yellowstone's Grand Loop Road, how many visitors would be deprived incredible vistas?

For those who would remove roads, would they support mass transit in the form, for instance, of light rail, or should all signs of these corridors be removed?

These are not simple questions, and I would guess -- in light of all the economic, access, and environmental issues -- there are no simple answers.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway was built for the expressed purpose of linking Zion, from the east, to both Bryce Canyon N.P. and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This massive project was undertaken with a lot of pressure from the Union Pacific Railroad which had built lodges and other facilities at these parks and was anxious to have better roads on which to operate their fleet of tour buses out of their Cedar City railhead. It was all about maximizing corporate profits and the federal government sold it to the Utah locals as a way of bringing much needed "development" into their backward corner of Mormondom.

Just like all other corporatist government interventions, be it the TVA, NPS or the Bureau of Reclamation, it is was an unnatural injection of imperial capital into a far-flung section of the empire that would never have had the means, intention or desire to undertake it with local resources. Just like the Roman aqueducts you see dotting remote sections of Spain and France, these massive public works are examples of what Wilhelm Röpke aptly termed the "cult of the colossal."

These gigantic projects were far more than measures to bring electricity, agriculture or tourist development into rural areas but symbolized the mighty power of central government planning and the war on private initiative. In this way the 20th-century American federal government and European fascism were little different in their outlook and tone when it came to constructing these outsized monuments to their vision of a grand and glorious empire stamping its mighty and indomitable will upon the landscape. Look upon my works and tremble.

Today millions of visitors use this road annually to access the parks and monuments of this region and it would extremely unpopular to close it down and let the Clear Creek/Pine Creek drainage revert back to its natural state. The genie is clearly out of the bottle and the industrial tourism that was spawned by it must continue unabated.

I agree with Frank C. though. This is one of Zion's most spectacular sections and deserves better than a road clogged with RV's carved through its magnificence.

Just one dude's opinion.


Thank you for your level response; it is very much appreciated.

Over the last few years, I have forced myself to become more moderate on my outlook on roads and vehicles in parks. (I think it moderate, for instance, to close East Rim Drive at Crater Lake to auto traffic. Or Zion's east side for that matter. There are still plenty of opportunities for motoring remaining. These measures would not create a situation where someone would have to undertake "50 mile hike into the wilderness", as some have absurdly proposed.) However, I think it is important to point out the double standard among environmentalists and park enthusiasts when it comes to CO2 production, mining, and other activities that impact parks and the environment.

The political realities of the current situation are clear to me, but with a paradigm shift, parks can be insulated from politics. Our treasures deserve better than the self-serving politicians and parasitic lobbyists currently in control.

I'm glad you quoted Crater Lake's administrative history; I read it as a seasonal, and the admin history lists Joaquin Miller's article "Sea of Silence" in its bibliography. (Although the administrative history seems not to include Miller's original 1904 article from "Sunset". Maybe because it shows an early opposition to government "progress" at Crater Lake?)

Miller pleaded, "No hotel or house or road of any sort should ever be built near this Sea of Silence. All our other parks have been surrendered to hotels and railroads. Let us keep this last and best sacred to silence and nature."

Miller--and successive generations--lost out to the growing federal leviathan, "progress", and interest groups of the time.

But we've come a long way. We know better now. We can pry loose the corporatist stranglehold on our parks. Sacrificing silence and solitude to the industrial machine so that people will support parks is an unnecessary compromise forced upon us by corporatist America. NPT has taken a stance against snowmobiles and OHVs, claiming there is plenty of other space in the country for those activities; the same is true for cars in parks.

Whether or not parks would have been established without industrial access is a moot point. We have these parks NOW and we have the choice NOW to begin restoring them--and the Organic Act--to their original intent: unimpaired preserves and refuges from the modern world.

Frank –

Although I certainly respect the high regard you hold for areas such as parks, Vince has a good grasp of the political realities involved in setting those areas aside in the first place – along with the even more pressing realities confronting those areas today. A broad constituency will become more critical than ever if our parks are to survive.

I'd suggest that we'd have few parks today without the roads and development that made it possible for people to get to—and into—those areas. That public awareness of the wonders contained in previously inaccessible areas helped build the support needed for many of the parks we have today.

As an example, consider the political battle over the establishment of Crater Lake National Park in 1902. There were people in positions of power who opposed the concept of any additional national parks. Here’s what happened when supporters of the Crater Lake bill tried to move it along in Congress, taken from Crater Lake's Administrative History:

Despite the favorable report by the committee, the bill encountered opposition from House Speaker David B. Henderson of Iowa. Because there were a number of national parks and battlefield bills before the House at the time Henderson refused to recognize any of them. Thus, when Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa attempted to call up the bill for consideration by the Committee of the Whole on March 14, Henderson refused to permit the bill to be debated.

The bill was finally allowed to come up for a vote only after the personal intervention of President Teddy Roosevelt. Would that, and other parks, have been established if they had been designated as roadless areas? Good question, but I suspect not.

Do we need wilderness areas where human impacts are minimized to the greatest extent possible? Absolutely. Has development gotten out of hand in some parks? There's a topic that can fuel some lively debate, but I'd say "yes." I'd suggest that a balance of wilderness and carefully designed access and facilities for visitors is a reasonable goal for the system as a whole. We haven't always succeeded, but we're a lot better off with what we have vs. few parks at all.

The presence of roads in our national parks is the primary - if not the only - way that most people visit them. Without visitors, the parks would have little constituency. Without a constituency, the parks would be overrun by those would would destroy them. Do you really think that so many parks would have been created if people had not been able to visit them, appreciate them, and support their creation? Or perhaps you believe that only those who are hearty enough to be able to hike into your roadless parks should be able to enjoy them. Sorry about that young kids, older people, handicapped people, and anyone who can't undertake a 50 mile hike into the wilderness... you're not welcome to visit our roadless parks.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to the parks - on roads! We didn't hike (although I always wanted to). As an adult, I've spent virtually every vacation with my family in the parks. We always hike and my son has become far more attuned to nature and the importance of protecting it and of protecting these cathedrals than I was at his age. He will be a vocal park supporter for the rest of his life.

If you believe that the parks would enjoy even a fraction of the public support that they receive now without people having the ability to drive to and through them, you are living in a fantasy world.

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