"You could have thousands," park Superintendent Jock Whitworth said.
How? There's much private land that never got absorbed into the park. Roughly 3,300 acres remain of homesteads that were sandwiched by 147,000 acres of parklands in 1956, when Congress affixed the Kolob Canyon section to Zion's core. They are parcels originally intended for acquisition in a dream gone largely dormant for lack of funding in recent years.
Now, arid buttes and mesas that once seemed remote are looking more like pedestals for trophy homes. It would take a Washington County zoning change to enable the thousands that Whitworth fears, but he doesn't doubt some landowner might request and get that over the Park Service's objections.
"We're the feds," he shrugged, explaining his lack of pull with government-wary officials.
Right now, the land is zoned for one home per 20 acres, meaning owners could erect up to 165 homes, give or take a few. Some subdivided parcels, including the 7-acre lot where a home is rising this summer, predate the county's 1972 plan and don't need 20 acres. All, though, must prove they have good water, which means drilling a successful well.
"It ruins people's experience when they come up to hike here," said Springdale-based guide Bruce Nielson, who frequently shuttles hikers up the Kolob Terrace Road to destinations like The Subway, a watery technical day hike through one of the park's slot canyons.
Nielson also complains about cattle that graze along the road and even into the park, remnants of a winking agreement that a previous superintendent made in exchange for trail access linking the park's two lobes. And now, with a tall house under construction, he fears the valley along this narrow, crumbling red asphalt road will change from a playground for the adventurous to an observatory for the wealthy.
"It's going to happen," he said. "The land up there is worth a ton."
Money for preventing it is something the National Park Service lacks these days. It's part fiscal reality, part political philosophy.
In the 1960s, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, tapping revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing to buy everything from national park and wildlife refuge lands to city parks. Congress authorized $900 million annually for this cause, but routinely withholds two-thirds or more for other government spending. The fund has received its full due only once.
President Barack Obama has attempted to reserve more of these funds for their original purpose, but the latest effort failed when the U.S. House nixed a $700 million funding amendment from its transportation bill last month.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, helped lead the opposition to that funding, spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said. That's partly because a transportation bill was no place for such an amendment, she said, but also because Bishop "is not a fan of the Land and Water Conservation Fund."
Congress appropriated $322 million for the current fiscal year, which represents a rebound from $156 million in the last Bush administration budget. Obama is seeking $450 million for next year, but the House voted to give just $66 million in an Interior Department appropriations bill that the Senate has yet to take up.
Bishop supports Utah's effort to take over federal lands excluding national parks within the state. State legislation passed this year could set up a legal showdown, with the Legislature claiming Congress promised at statehood that it would sell the federal lands.
The congressman also opposes buying more federal lands, Subbotin said, and believes states should decide on and pay for any new lands to protect, especially in fiscally troubled times.
"Not only do we not have the funding to procure new land," she said, "but we currently do not have the funding resources to maintain the land that's already in the federal estate."
Park advocates see savings in acquiring some private inholdings, though. It can reduce conflicts that damage water, vegetation, trail access or visitor experiences items that National Parks Conservation Association regional program manager Cory MacNulty said the parks end up spending money to overcome.
"We've already invested so much in establishing these parks," MacNulty said. "That's undermined when these developments happen."
Even when the Park Service gets money from the fund, it has to prioritize among its venues. The agency's Rocky Mountain region office hasn't targeted any at Zion in four years, said Jason Corzine, Southwest director of the Trust for Public Land, despite the fact that it's the seventh most visited national park.
Part of the problem: Zion is surrounded by urbanizing areas that cater to sun-seekers, Corzine said, and the cost is higher per acre than around other parks.
"It's iconic and a gem for the park system," he said, "but for some reason we're not getting funding flowing to it."
There are willing sellers. For instance, one owner of 30 undeveloped acres just off of Kolob Terrace Road wants to sell. But Whitworth is unsure Zion will have the money. The park is still smarting at the $800,000 it paid for 10 acres just down the road a price resulting from an appraisal whose accuracy Whitworth disputes. (Despite federal scrimping, Zion has assembled hundreds of thousands of dollars since the 1980s for such purchases from a voluntary $1 surcharge at a park-owned lodge.)
The seller was Hank Landau, who five years ago built a home and spiritual retreat that stages group events on adjoining acreage. Whitworth said he approached Landau about holding off or altering his plans when he started building, but got an angry reception.
Landau declined to comment last week. Whitworth said owners who build on inholdings are within their rights, though he would like to broker some compromises.
"What I would like to see," Whitworth said, "is if homeowners would like to build, they would at least come to us and try to make it compatible."
The wall of windows in the home now under construction offers an example. The superintendent fears glaring lights and an end to stellar stargazing in the area.
"Dark skies are a resource that the nation is quickly losing," he said, "and these are some of the best."
Washington County is aware of the Park Service's discomfort, but will keep permitting homes if owners can prove water access and get a septic tank permit, Planning Administrator Deon Goheen said.
Park officials "need to go ahead and purchase if they find out it's something they don't want to have within their boundaries," Goheen said. "I just feel that if it's privately owned and people do things according to our ordinance, we pretty much need to follow through and let that [development] happen."
Even in the land of Zion.
Twitter: @brandonloomis First story in a series
Today's story begins a summerlong Salt Lake Tribune series examining issues facing Utah's five national parks. First up, the state's most popular park: Zion.