Making Connections in Utah: Supporting Gateway Communities and National Parks
Does Mother Nature play favorites? Because I think she has a sweet spot for Utah. Its towering red cliffs, ornate stone formations, and harrowing canyons, all meticulously fashioned by the forces of nature, leave an impression on visitors that can last a lifetime. Deep mysterious caves, expansive landscapes, and even ancient cultural artifacts can all be found within its 13 national park units, attracting 8.9 million visitors and generating an estimated 9,000 jobs and $366 million in economic activity on average each year.
Yet, while the resources in the parks themselves are undeniably crucial, there is another equally vital component to these special places that is often overlooked—their gateway communities. As diverse as the parks themselves, these communities play a critical role in influencing the conditions of Utah’s national treasures and the experiences visitors have when they choose to visit them. For example, the town of Springdale worked with Zion National Park to develop a groundbreaking park shuttle system in 1997. By providing visitors with the option to leave their cars in Springdale and visit the park via propane-powered shuttles, this partnership helps reduce traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.
Recognizing the significance of this two-way relationship between parks and gateway communities, NPCA’s Southwest Regional Office along with a team of dedicated community leaders recently hosted Utah’s first-ever Gateway Community Forum. Held last fall at Robert Redford’s famous Sundance Resort, the event’s premise was simple: Utah’s national parks and monuments and the visitors they attract impact the economies, businesses, and residents of neighboring cities and towns. In turn, communities near these recreation destinations provide gateway facilities and services to both visitors and locals. Successful collaboration, communication, and partnerships among gateway communities and public land managers can help protect quality of life for community residents, while shared advocacy efforts can help preserve the natural and cultural treasures in our national parks and monuments.
An event two years in the making, the forum provided state and community leaders and public land managers the opportunity to discuss unique challenges, solve complex problems, develop best practices, and begin a process of supporting one another as Utah develops its communities as gateways. In total, the event drew more than 100 participants from communities and public lands across the state. Newly appointed Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, State Director of Tourism Vicki Varela, and acting NPS Intermountain Regional Director Laura Joss all spoke at the event.
Most importantly, the forum helped to generate several “communities of practice”—a fancy term for self-organized groups of people who decide to work together because they share a common issue. Some of the issues central to these groups include economic development, collaboration, tourism, lands access, and local community branding. In addition, the forum allowed for valuable informal networking opportunities among participants. One immediate result was the recent collaboration between the town of Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park. These two entities are diligently working together to create a bike path that will better connect Torrey to its adjacent national treasure. Not surprisingly, it is our hope at NPCA that these communities of practice will help to further strengthen the relationships between gateway communities and their neighboring national parks over time, in turn leading to greater success stories for both.
NPCA remains committed to providing the resources necessary to sustain the momentum generated by the event itself. Now more than ever, our public land managers and gateway communities must come together to protect not only our national parks and monuments, but also the communities that rely on them.