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A Personal Experience

Camera equipment weighs heavy on my back, and the cold wind bites. I lean against the rock wall and brace myself with my spiked tripod as I slide around the final icy bend of the trail. A vivid and sweeping vista opens up before me. My eyes trace the highlights of the famed Delicate Arch for the first time, at once precarious and solid against weather and time. It sweeps from soft shadow at the base to vivid orange-red where it meets sky, a faint dusting of snow painting mottled highlights along it.

Cold desert air fills my lungs as I take a deep breath and drink in the view. Then.... loud music starts blaring from a phone. Across the basin, a crying child complains about being tired and cold and drags one unhappy family back toward the icy trail to begin the long slippery return to the parking lot. A dog off leash is being yelled at for barking, its loud disruptions echoing off the rocks. Pets are not allowed here but that hardly bothered the owner. Dozens of people climb over the great monument like ants, bent on taking the perfect selfie, as if that was the only possible way to be fulfilled here. The natural setting is a mere sideline to the human goings on, and seems hardly noticed by many. Any wildlife will be miles away. My expectation of wonder is shattered as the place begins to feel like a used up tourist stop, just a box to check on some list.

I’ve had similar experiences in many popular national parks, state parks, and wilderness areas. I’ve been pushed out of the way for selfies, followed on hikes, had my car blocked in, been traffic jammed, crowded like a sardine, annoyed by noise. I've  observed vandalism, animal harassment, litter, theft, illegal driving and parking, and other general rule breaking. These experiences in places I hold sacred have prompted me to avoid crowded natural areas during normal busy hours, and have made ear plugs standard equipment.

Sometimes its a great pleasure to be with others at these beautiful places, but the obvious correlation is that as crowds swell, incidences of disrespect and abuse increase from those who don't know to respect their surroundings. My personal experiences have led me to write this post focusing on the issue of over crowding at US National Parks, for now omitting further comment on state parks, monuments, national forest or tribal lands. While the national parks have been through ups and downs in past decades regarding crowds and management, I find current trends disturbing at several popular parks. I fear that the stewards of the parks, the National Park Service, may be making some choices that contribute to the crowding problems.

Problems Caused By Overcrowding

Over time, many of the popular national parks have evolved into major tourist and entertainment attractions drawing international crowds. Many parks support large local economies. Some fill beyond capacity with visitors overwhelming available roads and infrastructure. Many popular parks now require visitors to park in feeder lots and take shuttle bus service to destinations within the park. Often in these areas camping, trail permits, and even nearby off site lodging must be reserved many months in advance.

There are extreme cases of overcrowding: In 2015, the Utah Highway Patrol was forced to close the entrance to Arches National Park when the line of cars waiting to enter became so long that traffic was disrupted on US Highway 191, by some reports up to several miles from the entrance gates. In Yellowstone, it is not uncommon to have long traffic jams due to crowding or animals.

Not all cases of overcrowding are as blatant, but crowds always bring challenges. Roads, parking, facilities, camping, trails, and view areas are filled beyond safe and enjoyable capacity. There is a greatly increased burden of traffic management, waste collection, public safety, rule enforcement, even search and rescue operations. Ranger stations and visitor centers cannot keep up with needs of the visitors, let alone manage and protect the wildlife and resources at all times. Vandalism and theft of historical or natural objects continues to occur, including recently at Arches and Death Valley. Visitors looking for widely varied experiences are increasingly in conflict with each other and the land. Wildlife is affected, in some cases with catastrophic consequences. In 2016, visitors to Yellowstone picked up a baby buffalo that ‘looked cold’. The calf was subsequently disowned by its herd and had to be euthanized. Bears and wild cats have met similar fates after being fed or having frequent close encounters with campers improperly storing food or people taking pictures. In Grand Tetons this July, a grizzly cub was run over and the driver fled.

The experience at some parks has massively diminished. Visitors bused in shuttles have little  in the way of peace or control over their park experience. Showing up to an amazing trail or viewpoint only to rub elbows with dozens or even hundreds of others can distract from the natural beauty of the environment and in some cases make the experience not enjoyable at all, depending on how respectful visitors are of the environment and each other. Finding a solitary trail or a pristine moment is completely impossible in some areas. The NPS makes no attempts to encourage certain behavioral norms, and so many busy parks take on a tourist trap or circus feeling.

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What Is a National Park For?

National Parks offer amazing possibilities. Visitors can picnic by a lush waterfall, camp on a remote beach under vivid stars, gaze from dizzy heights, see wildlife in habitat, lay in fields of flowers, witness a geyser erupt, walk on scalding dunes, paddle an alpine lake, or test their mettle in true outback adventures away from the easy access points. The list of activities is endless and all can in theory occur in relative harmony. While humans enjoy the parks, animals and ecosystems within park boundaries are protected relatively uninterrupted by humans. A balance of recreation and protection has been the goal of the National Park system since inception. I needed to explore some history to convince myself that conservation was never the primary goal:

In 1864 Yosemite Valley was transferred from federal holding to the state of California by signature of Abraham Lincoln on condition that the state would preserve it for public use and recreation. This set a precedent as one of the first federal actions to protect natural resources.

Soon after, in 1872, Yellowstone became the first official national park in the world following Ferdinand Hayden’s geologic survey of the area. Hayden had been quite affected by his experience in Yellowstone, and helped to convince the United States Congress to preserve the area from ownership and exploitation, proposing that the land be “set aside as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”. Hayden intended both recreation and preservation to be equal requirements of the new park- and so they were.

In the following decades federal protection extended to more lands, but the agencies and policies protecting and managing them were disparate. In 1916, the National Park Service (NPS hereafter) was created specifically to administer federally protected lands and monuments. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the bill that tasked the NPS with the goal it still holds today: protecting scenery, wildlife, history, and accessibility of the national parks indefinitely.

Though reorganizations of the park lands have occurred, and the NPS has evolved, their mission has largely stayed the same. In fact, the NPS on their website currently states their mission as “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Are National Parks Being Exploited?

Recall that the mission of the NPS is to preserve lands of historic or natural importance, but also to ensure their accessibility for recreation. Neither part of that dual mission supersedes the other. The NPS is not there to keep perfect wilderness that no one can ever see, nor to ensure that only some members of the public get to enjoy the parks. It’s got to be an extremely precarious balancing act. Despite the obvious dedication and successes of the NPS, are they sometimes serving agendas that are not part of their charter? Are they simply falling short, or are outside entities taking advantage of the park resources?

As a logical step to keeping lands accessible, the NPS engages the public with outreach campaigns both locally and via social media. They want to attract new and repeat visitors because they must; After all, they collect around 80% of their budget from entrance fees, contrary to the common belief that tax dollars funds them completely. Over the years they have built up large infrastructures at some parks to serve the increasing masses, and this requires large workforces and budgets. At some point though, does attracting the maximum amount of visitors do more harm than good? When multiple busloads of tourists spill out in a selfie taking mob, can anyone really enjoy the experience of a national park or monument as was originally intended? If animals, lands, and other protected resources are commonly disrupted by visitors, has not the mission failed?

The NPS of late have begun to aggressively reel in as many people as possible with ad campaigns. A summer 2016 Instagram post by the NPS was about the practice of “Glamping” or “Glamour-Camping”, where those who would not ordinarily camp due to dirt, bugs or other natural unpleasantness might visit the parks but stay in upscale lodging nearby. This campaign used an airy, frivolous looking cartoon woman as the spokesperson and was clearly targeting a certain demographic of new visitor.

The new “Find Your Park” campaign is one with wide appeal that seeks as many visitors as possible. If it seems like the NPS is bent on growing visitor volume, it’s because they are. A recent National Public Radio broadcast interviewed Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel who acknowledged the crowding issues but boasted about the success of ad campaigns and the resultant dramatic increase in park visitors. As strange as it seems, the NPS solution seems to be the same as their problem: more visitors. This is an unfortunate form of exploitation by the one group of people who should be preventing it.

NPS are not the only ones who want more visitors in the parks. Hotel owners, tours, restaurants, outfitters, gear manufacturers, gas stations, vehicle rental agencies and a long list of other businesses depend on the parks and some aggressively advertise the parks. Utah’s state tourism board created the “Mighty 5” ad campaign in 2013 to promote its five national parks, leading to a massive uptake in visitor counts. The mentioned Arches gate closure incident was a direct result. In Zion, even the bus system designed to alleviate crowding cannot handle the influx of visitors. Economies put enormous pressures on the park system, and change the purpose of parks from accessible natural preserve to tourist attraction, and a source of jobs and profit. This is blatant exploitation. Can self-promotion combined with advertisements of industry really be good for the future of the parks? Should they be treated as tourist attractions? How many more people can they handle? If both preservation and recreation are compromised – the whole point of the national parks - it is time to make some changes.

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Can Solutions Be Found?

The NPS bears the real burden of figuring out how to evolve, but I have a few of my own ideas to offer:

1) The NPS needs to dial back advertising and find ways to eliminate reliance on gate fees – if gate fees drive revenue but that revenue is mostly used to provide infrastructure for the masses of visitors - a vicious cycle of ever more visitors will be the result, with the consequence of further degradation of the park lands and a bloated NPS.

2) Any for profit business or entity using national parks in advertisements to generate revenue should have to pay at least a small percentage back to the NPS, or alternately, provide an acceptable form of community service to the parks. People want to make a living off of the parks? Fair enough – but give back to keep them healthy for us all.

3) The parks need increased rule enforcement. No one person’s activities should supersede those of others or damage the park. Loud music, illegal parking, rude behavior, children or pets out of control, approaching wild animals, damaging fragile wilderness – all these activities must be prevented more actively.

4) Promote a culture of respect for the parks. All who enter a park should respect the park and each other. When a busload of people dumps out at a monument, those people need to know how to behave- that they are free to enjoy as they choose within limits. I remember visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and with a few words, was made aware of the rules and knew what was expected of my behavior. Having a few boundaries in no way took away from the experience; rather it made it more intimate through increased respect for the place.

5) Peak time fees should increase for all visitors at busy parks (already implemented at some parks). Double or triple entrance fees at peak hours during the busy season. Foreign visitors, who do not contribute as tax payers, should pay still higher rates during peak times. Taxpayers already support the parks (only partially), but gate fees make up the large majority of park income. If everyone is truly to pay equally, foreign visitors need to chip in a bit more to match the taxpayer contribution. I would have no problem paying a reasonable amount more than citizens in any country to see their attractions. Although the NPS does not collect visitor nationality statistics, it is glaringly obvious that much of the visitor increase in recent years comes from abroad. Higher entrance fees may also entice some visitors to be more respectful if they have more invested in the experience.

6) Certain attractions with extreme crowds such as Delicate Arch or Grand Prismatic Spring should have a ranger, or several, on duty at the site during all peak hours to remind visitors to follow rules and be respectful.

7) Entrance gates should close to certain attractions or parks altogether for brief intervals to relieve crowds.

8) Most extreme, perhaps reservations will one day be required to visit the parks.

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