June 24th, 4:50pm
We were thrilled to speak with Michael Plyler, Photographer and Director of the Zion Canyon Field Institute. Offering single & multi-day courses, lectures, and custom adventures (guided hikes), the Field Institute was created at the request of the National Park Service, to provide a more robust experience for visitors who wanted to richer experiences with the landscape around them. Michael described his role as the perfect blend of his degrees in archeology and geology, interest in backpacking and hiking, and passion for photography. In addition to teaching classes with the institute, Michael’s photography is on view in Springdale galleries and in many books about the region, most notably “Southern Paiute: A Portrait.”
Much of our conversation centered around a topic that’s front of mind for many as visitation continues to increase - the safety of park visitors. Michael explained that it took Zion National Park 56 years to hit 1 million visitors, but from 2012 to 2016, visitation had increased from 3 to 3.7 million visitors. Not only is this a strain on the park’s infrastructure (long shuttle lines, heavy use of bathroom facilities-to name a few) but it also puts at risk a fragile desert ecosystem, which can take a long time to recover.
With this uptick in visitation, Michael says that many new visitors seem to understand Zion not as a wild place, but as a controlled, Disneyland-type of environment. Not only are the trails in Zion much more difficult than say, the trails of Yosemite, the terrain can bring a lot of unpredictable situations even on a sunny day—what Michael describes as the “floods and fury in the desert.” Those who decide to hike or canyoneer are especially at risk.
Conservationist and author Terry Tempest Williams writes of the desert, “It offers us a walk through time where canyon walls rise upward like praying hands. The desert is both beauty and terror, never to be underestimated, always to be respected. We live by wild mercy.” Michael shared several stories of visitors who, despite warnings from park or other officials, choose to hike The Narrows or The Subway and meet fates of injury, exhaustion, or in worst cases, tragedy. In 2015, a group of 7 hikers were killed canyoneering in Keyhole Canyon, considered to be one of the park’s most “accessible” slot canyons. This statistic made his point: while visitation was up 14% last year, search and rescue was up 29%.
Hand in hand with danger and unpredictability is the beauty of this place: a dark night sky which offers some visitors their first glimpse of the Milky Way, a steep river that carves the canyon and a gives life to a lush desert, and sandstone cliffs that are the tallest in the world. While Michael joked that they don’t need any more visitors, he shared that his greatest hope for Campfire Stories would be that stories about Zion would not only capture its immense beauty, but also it’s fury, so that when visitors do come, they will be prepared.