There’s no denying that the national parks have a crowd problem. This year, a post-lockdown wave of visitors has smashed park visitation records, forcing major destinations like Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks to mandate reservations for visitors while others like Arches have had to shut their gates as parking lots filled. Now, Capitol Hill is taking notice: On June 28, a Senate subcommittee met to discuss crowding in the parks, hearing testimony from land managers and park advocates as they discussed potential solutions to the crush.
In recent months, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has often fractured along party lines as senators battled over drilling rules or Biden appointees. But on Wednesday, the members of its national parks subcommittee seemed to largely agree that overcrowding posed a serious threat to both park visitors’ experiences and the parks themselves. In his opening statement, Senator Angus King (I-ME) pointed out that even though Covid is still limiting international travel to the U.S., visitation to parks like Glacier, Acadia, and Yosemite is hitting all time highs this year.
“It’s great to see so many Americans taking advantage of these parks. It is, after all, why we protect these lands in the first place,” King said. “However, at the same time, we must recognize that overcrowding in the parks itself can degrade the natural resources and wildlife that these units are designed to protect. We can, accidentally, love our parks to death.”
National park visitation has grown steadily over the past 40 years, but in the past five years, it’s hit a fever pitch, driven by an increase in public interest in the outdoors as well as limited recreational options during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the country’s most popular parks have set all-time visitor records this year; in April, Yellowstone saw 40% more visitors than it did over the same period in 2019, while Grand Teton received 48% more.
In response, some parks like Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Park have instituted timed reservation systems, requiring visitors to buy an entry pass to the park well in advance. In a prepared statement to the subcommittee, Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce near Glacier National Park, said that while he and 90% of local business owners supported that park’s ticketed entry system, it had become “the worst part of the visitor experience,” and that its rollout months before the summer tourist season had caused confusion and frustration among would-be park visitors who didn’t realize they needed advance reservations.
Several speakers during the hour-long hearing suggested that the park service make an effort to steer visitors towards less-trafficked parks to reduce crowding at marquee areas. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) said that while visitation had spiked at marquee parks like Glacier, many lesser-known units around the state, like Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area had seen only modest increases in traffic.
However, Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, pushed back on that idea, observing that while visitor numbers have skyrocketed, national parks’ staffs have stayed flat or shrunk over the same period, leaving fewer employees available to help manage facilities and ensure public safety. Brengel warned of “unintended consequences” if visitors begin to spill into under-resourced parks, using the example of Canyonlands, which has seen overflow as nearby Arches National Park has regularly filled to capacity. Even at that formerly-remote park, she said, waits now often stretched to 30 minutes or more.
“While record-setting visitation for a historically less-visited park may seem on the surface to be a good thing, parks like Canyonlands are not sufficiently resourced, especially in terms of staff, to serve so many visitors,” Brengel said. “As park superintendents have told us, increased visitation has also led to increased search and rescue needs. If dispersal is increased, park visitors could access terrain that they are not equipped for, which could add to the staffing and financial burdens that parks are already trying to manage.”
Ultimately, King said, addressing overcrowding in the parks will likely require multiple approaches, from reservation systems to expanded shuttle bus services. It might even be, he said, a good reason to consider “new proposals for parks.”
“As we’ve all learned, there’s no single solution,” King said. “But one additional solution is to provide additional opportunities for people to enjoy these extraordinary places in our country.”