National Parks Face Over-Crowding, Degradation

Crowds observe the Excelsior Geyser Crater from the safety of a boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, July 4, 2015.

By Daniel Matthews 

It’s a conundrum. You want to find nature and get away from crowds of people, but other people do too. As the population grows, the very urge to get away and find the quiet, untouched places brings millions of people flocking to where you’re trying to go to get away from them (and they from you).

2016 marks the centennial birthday of the National Park Service (NPS). To celebrate, the NPS is urging you to Find Your Park. But one thing’s clear: They’re not ‘your’ parks. They’re playgrounds for millions of people in a soaring population.

Each of the most popular National Parks had over 3.5 million visitors in 2015. For all of them, attendance has continued to rise since 2005. The Great Smoky Mountains, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, hit an all-time high of 10.7 million visitors, a rise of 17 percent.

As with any issue, there are multiple sides to the over-crowding of National Parks. On one hand, as Zion National Park’s chief of commercial partnerships and planning Jack Burns says, Zion was never designed to see, literally, millions of people.” The crowding makes it hard for attendees to enjoy themselves. And, the more people, the more littering and pollution — the more maintenance the parks need.

The price-tag for that maintenance, for all the parks combined, is $11.9 billion. Congress has been able to appropriate around $3 billion per year — but that’s not enough. Combined with entrance fees, donations, and concession sales, appropriations still can’t cover the rising cost of wear and tear.

On the other hand, communities benefit from the influx of tourists. One report estimates the National Parks chipped in nearly $30 billion to the economy in 2014.

Northwest Montana’s Glacier National Park partners with Glacier Park, Inc. to provide lodging in and around the park. This funnels hospitality and recreation business to the nearby town of Whitefish, which has seen a boom in commerce coinciding with the rising attendance at the park. In turn, Whitefish’s population continues to rise.

Glacier offers shuttles on its famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans the width of the park. Shuttles cut down on vehicular traffic. During peak visitation months, it’s incredibly hard to get a parking spot inside the park because of the crowds. People line up to take pictures of the mountain goats at Logan Pass, which marks the Continental Divide.

Glacier’s ecosystem might not be able to support the influx of people for very long. As the population grows and attendance skyrockets, the glaciers that lend Glacier its name continue to shrink.

According to the NPS, global climate change scientists predict all of Glacier’s glaciers will be gone by 2030.

In other National Parks, such as Denali (which is also a wildlife preserve), you can’t take a car past a certain point if you want to get to the backcountry. This prevents overcrowding and degradation of that region. In order to get to the lodge, you either have to hike in, fly, or take a bus. Similarly, Zion has a mandatory shuttle system because of just how bad pollution and traffic were in 2001.

Alpine forest and lakes in Alaska’s Denali National Park.

A solution to the overcrowding problem is not easy to find. Some have proposed a reservation system (in which you’d have to reserve a spot). But that would counter the come-one-come-all spirit exemplified by the Find Your Park campaign. As far as the maintenance problem goes, one idea is to create more National Parks. Then, traffic would be diverted from the parks that are run down. Also, more parks would mean more environmental preservation efforts. But Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, says this is a bad idea. The NPS wouldn’t be able to keep up with the additional parks. If it can’t handle what it’s got going right now, the agency won’t be able to handle more, because of low funding and lack of personnel.

Another idea is to invite more public-private partnerships. Glacier National Park’s partnership with Glacier Park, Inc. is an example of this, but only in the lodging sector. Other parks such as Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone use private sector companies to operate lodging, food, retail, and other commercial operations. The idea is for companies to step in and run the day-to-day operations, including maintenance.

This, however, would open the door to the corporatization of our parks. Advocates point out the parks would still make the rules, while private organizations would just manage the day-to-day.

Our political system shows what can happen when private money influences public decisions. Companies tend to find any way they can to milk money out of their investments. The NPS would have to impose strict regulations to make sure this wouldn’t happen. And what type of tax loopholes could companies find while profiting off of public land and tourism?

The NPS isn’t putting on Find Your Park, with its fee-free entrance days, frivolously. The centennial celebration will draw attention to how valuable our parks are, as well as how much we need the NPS to maintain them. Hopefully, it will spur a national conversation about conservation.

Photo credits: 1) Lan Kim, Wikimedia Commons 2) Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons