Zion National Park yesterday stopped issuing wilderness permits to hike the famous Narrows Trail after a ranger discovered “no trespassing” signs along a section of private property adjacent to the park boundary. The move shuts down access to one of the most popular and coveted hikes in the country, a sublime 16-mile trek along the North Fork of the Virgin River from the high country north of the Utah park.

Like much of America’s public lands, Zion is surrounded by private holdings. In 2013, the Trust for Public Lands secured a permanent easement through the private Chamberlain Ranch, preserving access to the Narrows, but has not been able to do the same at the 880-acre Simon Gulch parcel, which includes a mile of trail and a mile along the river.

The Simon Gulch owner did not contact the park or complain, but rather posted a sign along the trail that says, “Own over 1 mile of the Zion Narrows. 880 Acres. With Water. Resort potential,” and another one that says, “Permission to Pass Subject to Trespassing Fee.”

Rangers discovered the signs over the weekend. On Tuesday, the park stopped issuing permits and today announced the move on Twitter. “Effective immediately, Zion National Park has stopped issuing wilderness permits to hike the Zion Narrows from north to south (‘top-down’). This includes the 16-mile one-way day hike and all overnight use,” the park said in a statement.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Narrows still may be hiked from the bottom up, as the southern entrance lies within park boundaries. Top-down permits had been restricted to 50 overnight hikers and 40 day hikers per day. The move comes as one of the best times to be in Zion, with cool nights and warm days, and the park was scrambling to alert existing permit holders; permits have already been issued through November.

Local outfitters, who run shuttles to the Narrows trailhead, are upset at the sudden move.

Zion Adventure Company runs four to six shuttles a day. Kim Hermann, Zion Adventure Company business administrator, told the Salt Lake Tribune, “When they called us this morning, they said, ‘We’re ceasing all access to the narrows as of today.’ We said ‘What? What are you talking about?’…It’s one of the main reasons why people come to Zion. We think that after so many years of being a public access that you can not all of a sudden close it and make it private.”

The incident in Zion is just one example of the many conflicts between private landowners and public land agencies. Throughout the United States, but especially in the West, access to public lands is increasingly being hindered or blocked by land owners. A 2013 study by the Center for Western Priorities found that four million acres of public lands in six western states were “landlocked” by private acreage. That same year, in Montana’s Crazy Mountains, ground zero for the fight over access, a landowner who was putting up locked gates and blocking roads that locals had used for decades shot and killed a neighbor who challenged his actions.

ADVERTISEMENT

On the West Coast, the battle has played out over beach access, with land owners challenging long-used rights of way. Near Half Moon Bay, California, a tech billionaire named Vinod Khosla closed access to a spot known as Martin’s Beach, which surfers, windsurfers, kayakers, anglers, and beachcombers have used for decades. When the public has traditionally had access across private land in California, that bit of land falls under a legal designation called a “prescriptive easement,” which by law allows the public to continue to use the land. Khosla is taking his case to the Supreme Court, which, if it takes up the case this fall, could bring radical change to how the public can reach the beach (or not). Potentially, it could even gut the California Coastal Act, which preserves the right for the public to access any beach up to the mean high tide line.

And then there’s the modern Sagebrush Rebellion, where local and state (and some federal) officials are trying to wrest federal public lands from the U.S. government and turn them over to states, which presumably would sell them (if history is a guide). In 2016, for example, more than 22 bills in state legislatures were introduced that would have seized lands from the feds. Of the six that passed, five were in Utah, which is particularly antagonistic toward federal lands. Though unconstitutional, the land seizure bills keep popping up in legislatures.

In Zion, Jim Petterson, the Trust for Public Land’s Southwest Area director, said, “We have been working closely for over three years with the owners of the 880-acre Simon Gulch property and key federal and state agencies to protect the property from subdivision and to secure a permanent access easement through the property for the Zion Narrows trail. The Simon Gulch property is adjacent to Zion National Park, and borders two Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas. It includes over a mile of the Zion Narrows Trail, and a mile of the North Fork River, which offers important wildlife habitat and is a vital source of drinking water for downstream communities. We are working hard to find a solution that resolves this access issue and restores public access to this remarkable natural resource.”

Photo by Brian Heimann