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With Public Lands More Crowded Than Ever, We Need to Make Peace With Permits

No one likes having to jump through a bunch of hoops just to hike a popular trail or visit a national park. But with more and more areas reaching their carrying capacity, it’s time to consider our options.

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You’re probably tired of talking about crowded trails. You’ve probably been part of conversations bemoaning busy parking lots, full-to-capacity campsites, eroded paths, and national park traffic jams. After all, it’s been going on for years

I remember sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic when I worked in Yellowstone in 2010, and when I hiked the Appalachian Trail eight years ago, I had to finagle tent space amongst the crowd of hikers in Georgia and North Carolina. 

Sure, there are things you can do to dodge the worst of it. You’ll avoid the crowds by hiking the AT southbound, visiting Yellowstone in the winter, or getting more than a few miles off the road in any national park. But during peak season, recreation sites have only gotten more crowded, to the point where the parking lot at Zion is packed by late morning during much of prime season, and conservationists are already fretting about massive traffic during California’s superbloom this year. 

But we’re not helpless when it comes to dealing with crowding outdoors. Each of these areas has a carrying capacity—the number of visitors the area can accommodate before the ecosystem and infrastructure can’t sustain the volume—and when we hit it, the only good option is to take action. In many spots, this might look like timed entry, reservation policies at previously open sites, or permits for trails that used to be open to anyone. It’s a nuisance, but for the country’s most popular hiking spots, it’s just the new reality.

The stats are eye-opening: In 2021, 25% of total visits on NPS-managed sites occurred in the eight most popular parks. However, visitation is going up across the board: 44 parks set a record for recreation visits, with the Smokies recording 10 million visitors, and Zion, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone all recording between 4 and 5 million visitors that year.

The impact of higher traffic varies from site to site based on ecosystem fragility, how dispersed popular attractions are, and how long the season is. A million visitors in Zion looks different than a million visitors in Yellowstone, and Glacier’s season is shorter than the Grand Canyon’s season. This uneven visitor distribution and impact variables means that addressing that impact is going to look different across the U.S.

One option that’s become familiar in recent years: timed entry. During the height of Covid restrictions, a handful of national parks instituted timed entry, dictating when visitors could access the park. While some, like Yosemite, have ditched their programs, others, like Rocky Mountain and Arches, plan to bring them back in 2023.

While hikers tend to bristle at the idea of having to get a permit for areas they used to visit at their leisure, there are benefits to timed entry. During a recent panel discussion on sustainable outdoor travel in Jackson Hole, Chip Jenkins, the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, pointed out to me that asking visitors to make reservations in advance is by no means a new idea. In fact, the free-for-all method we’ve used to admit people into national parks in the past is in many ways an anomaly.

“When you travel, you reserve everything from a seat on the flight to a hotel room to the guided boat tour,” Jenkins pointed out. “The only thing you don’t reserve is your entry time into the park.”

From wildfire suppression to climbing ethics, land protection ethos and management strategies are in constant flux, based on human impact and our evolving understanding of the natural world.  We also know it’s possible to love a place to death, from Spearhead Ridge in British Columbia to Max Patch Bald in North Carolina. If the carrying capacity of a place isn’t changing but the visitation continues to increase, that cycle becomes unsustainable .

“As we see more and more people feeding their souls through these activities and going to places not previously visited in larger numbers, each of these communities and the outdoor industry will need to confront the effects of our choices,” says Jenkins. 

With hiking and backpacking continuing to become more popular, it’s possible some of the parks that ditched it may bring it back. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy could institute a permit system similar to the PCT. Certain sites may even end up close for environmental rehabilitation, as Max Patch closed to camping. Beautiful campsites and dramatic trails aren’t renewable resources, and every path, natural feature, and recreation site has a limit. 

I’m not a planner; I avoid permitted trails and reservations, as my travel is often spur-of-the-moment and I don’t like to be corralled into an itinerary. But even I can see the benefits of being more deliberate with how we manage our most precious places. I’m willing to bet that with a little thought, you will too.

Balancing outdoor freedom with the ecological and practical realities of our parks and forests isn’t an easy conversation, and we won’t all agree on how to get it right. But being a backpacker, hiker, camper, or backcountry skier doesn’t just mean heading out for adventures in your favorite places. It means being a steward of the places that bring you joy. It’s our job to consider our increasing impact and accept the changes that come with ensuring a sustainable future for public lands. 

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