How A Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks
The growing crowds at U.S. National Parks have become unmanageable, jeopardizing the natural experience the parks were created to provide. With attendance this summer continuing to shatter records, officials are considering limiting use of the parks in order to save them.
By Jim Robbins | July 31, 2017
Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is the poster child for the crowding of America’s most hallowed natural places. With its soaring and magisterial red, dun, and white rock cliffs with grand names such as the Court of the Patriarchs and the Temple of Sinawava, Zion is at the top of the list of the nation’s most dramatic scenery.
It is also small as parks go, just under 150,000 acres and has only one main road, six miles long. Yet Zion gets as many visitors as Yellowstone, more than 4.3 million a year, even though Yellowstone is nearly fifteen times larger.
“In the last few years, this huge uptick in visitation has overwhelmed our infrastructure facilities, our trails, our backcountry, it goes on and on and on,” said John Marciano, a spokesman for Zion. “We can’t sit on our hands anymore. We have to come up with some kind of management plan to be able to preserve resources and to make sure our visitors have a good and safe experience.”
Saving a landscape as a national park is only part of the preservation battle – saving the spirit of these places is also essential. National parks are often thought of as America’s natural cathedrals – serene, contemplative places to visit and be restored by a connection to wild nature and grandeur.
That is impossible in the front country of Zion – and many other national parks – these days. Veteran park administrators are aghast at the “greenlock ” – gridlock in natural surroundings – in marquee national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and a host of other crown jewels.
Yellowstone, for example, has gone from 2 million visitors in 1980 to more than 4 million last year and is likely to climb higher. There were 2.3 million visitors to the Grand Canyon in 1980. In 2015, attendance broke the 5 million mark. A year later, it broke the 6 million barrier. Glacier, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Rocky Mountain are all smashing records and are overwhelmed with humanity, losing the very thing they were created to provide – a sense of peak naturalness. Managers are concerned that this is the new normal and may get worse.
“Visitors are losing in this mix of 5 and 6 million people trying to cram into places that are busy when it’s 2 or 3 million,” said Joan Anzelmo, a retired Park Service superintendent who lives near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and is active as a volunteer in efforts to mitigate the impacts of visitation outside Grand Teton and Yellowstone. “These are irreplaceable resources. We have to protect them by putting some strategic limits on numbers, or there won’t be anything left. Nobody will want to visit them. Everyone I know who lives, works, and is involved in these issues says something has to be done, it can’t go on like this anymore.”
If these were not national parks, the solution would be to keep building more infrastructure. But the National Park Service has a dual mandate from Congress: to “provide for the enjoyment in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Wider roads and more hotels and campgrounds would only create sprawl, diminish the experience of nature, and encourage yet more people to come.
This crowding comes at an uncertain time for the parks. President Trump has proposed cutting the Park Service budget by 13 percent (which would be the largest cut to the agency since World War II), and there is already a backlog of staffing and maintenance issues. And there is concern that the Trump Administration might move to make the parks even more friendly to commercial interests that would look bring in more visitors and more development.
The visitor crush is creating two main problems – a steep decline in the quality of visitor experience that a national park is supposed to provide, and damaging impacts on the ecology of these intact natural places. …
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