Fewer Visitors or More Parks? Dilemmas of National Park Overuse

Since its founding in the 1916 Organic Act, the mission of the National Park Service (NPS) has been  to preserve, unimpaired, America’s natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.[1] Today, national parks draw millions of visitors each year, and are in danger of being loved to death.  The NPS must either regulate its visitors more closely or add more parks to address overuse.

A Balancing Act

            The paradox of the park system is that public recreation can hinder preservation.[2] The poster child for the hazards of overuse is Zion National Park in southwestern Utah.

Long lines of cars wait to enter Zion, Even once you’re in, the “Canyon Parking Lot Is Full,” says the sign at the right. Photo from NPS.

Zion is a smaller park at just under 150,000 acres but still gets more than 4.3 million visitors a year, equivalent to Yellowstone, which is fifteen times larger.[3] Intensive park use has overwhelmed the park’s ecology, infrastructure, and trails, and degraded the visitor experience.  For example, Zion struggles to dispose of human waste.  Failures in this basic service, one visitors rarely think about, could contaminate water with E. coli, threatening wildlife biodiversity and human populations in the park and surrounding areas. At Zion, like in many parks, the paradox of the park mission grows ever more challenging.[4]

So What Do We Do?

Parks are seeking ways to balance recreation and preservation. Zion, for example, plans to mitigate overuse with road reconstruction and new visitor use management.[5]

One system-wide measure proposed by the Secretary of the Interior in 2017 would dramatically raise entrance fees at some of the most popular parks.  The new prices would have taken effect on May 1, 2018, at Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion national parks; on June 1, in Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Shenandoah; and in Joshua Tree  as soon as practicable.[6]

Fee hikes might balance the number of visitors with protecting the ecosystems—by raising funds to cut into the NPS’s maintenance backlog while also reducing visitation—but it also comes with negative trad eoffs. Raising the price of entrance is controversial and counter to the NPS’s desire to increase generational, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity among its visitors. In a nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal, resolving the park’s mission paradox by pricing out low-income users is not consistent with the democratic values implied by the Organic Act’s mandate to ensure widespread enjoyment or the park service’s historical efforts to make public lands accessible.

Currently the plan is on hold after public officials received more 109,000 complaints in 2017.  In April 2018, a National Park Service spokesman said the plan was “still being reviewed and not yet finalized.”[7]

Another possibility that so far does not have much traction would be to designate more national parks. Additionally, existing parks could be enlarged or other public lands designated for recreational purposes.  History recommends we consider this option.

For four decades after 1916, parks were lightly used.  After World War II, however, rising worker salaries, the emergence of paid vacation time, and inexpensive gasoline caused national park visitation to soar.  In response, Congress designated new parks, and as of 1980, there were 0.34 acres of parklands per American citizen.  Since, then, however, park creation has not kept pace with population growth.  By 2007, per capita acreage had fallen to 0.28.  Today it is 0.25.[8]    This decline does not account for the escalating numbers of foreign visitors.

This history suggests that rising visitation reflects the park service’s success, not its problems.  As the popularity of parks grows, the number of parks should too. To look into the future of national parks, then, we must first look into their pasts.

By Alexandria Kearney

CSU History and Political Science Major

Class of 2018

Sources:

Melford, Michael. “Top 10 Issues Facing National Parks.” Top Ten Issues Facing the National  Parks — National Geographic. May 26, 2010. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/national-parks-issues/.

United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service  System Plan One Hundred Years. National Park Service.  2017.  Accessed April 2,           2018. https://parkplanning.nps.gov/planningHome.cfm.

United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. “Foundation Document:  Zion National Park.” National Park Service. October, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2018.            https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/management/upload/ZION_Foundation_Document_SP 2.pdf

United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Zion National Park.        National Park Service. 2018. Accessed April 2, 2018. https://parkplanning.nps.gov/parkHome.cfm?parkID=113&CFID=20182556&CFTOK            N=fb307337db49bacf-488DD7BC-155D-962B-C2D58B3B9098A26D

United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service    Office of Communications. 2018. Accessed April 2, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/10-24-2017-fee-changes-proposal.htm.

Robins, Jim. “How A Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks.” Yale          Environment 360, July 31, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018. How A Surge in Visitors Is       Overwhelming America’s National Parks.

Swearingen, Marshall. “Public-lands Visitation and Recreation, by the Numbers.” Public-lands   Visitation and Recreation, by the Numbers -. July 20, 2015. Accessed April 02, 2018.     https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.12/lonely-spot-crowded-west-population-recreation-parks.

Victor, Daniel. “National Park Service Reconsiders Steep Fee Increase After Backlash.” New  York Times, April 5, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2018.         https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/us/national-parks-fee-increase.html

Walls, Margaret. “Parks and Recreation in the United Sates: The National Park System.” January 2009, Outdoor Resources Review Group, http://www.rff.org/files/sharepoint/WorkImages/Download/RFF-BCK-ORRG_National%20Park%20System.pdf. (Accessed May 12, 2018).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Zion angels landing view.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons,    the free media repository,            https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Zion_angels_landing_view.jpg     oldid=248979332 (accessed April 23, 2018).

 

Footnotes

[1] United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. “National Park Service System Plan One Hundred Years. National Park Service.” 1-156, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[2] Robins, Jim. “How A Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks.” Yale Environment 360, July 31, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[3] Robins, Jim. “How A Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks.” Yale Environment 360, July 31, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[4] United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Zion National Park. National Park Service. 2018. Accessed April 2, 2018; United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. “Foundation Document: Zion National Park. National Park Service.” October, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[5] United States. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Zion National Park. National Park Service. 2018. Accessed April 2, 2018.

[6] Victor, Daniel. “National Park Service Reconsiders Steep Fee Increase After Backlash.” New York Times, April 5, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2018.

[7] Victor, Daniel. “National Park Service Reconsiders Steep Fee Increase After Backlash.” New York Times, April 5, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2018.

[8] The numbers in this paragraph were calculated from data from the following sources: Margaret Walls, “Parks and Recreation in the United Sates: The National Park System,” January 2009, Outdoor Resources Review Group, http://www.rff.org/files/sharepoint/WorkImages/Download/RFF-BCK-ORRG_National%20Park%20System.pdf; “Frequently Asked Questions,” https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/faqs.htm; US Census Bureau, “US and World Population Clock,” https://www.census.gov/popclock/ (all accessed May 12, 2018).