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Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

Posted September 14, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: national parks zion

As my kids have gotten older, hiking has become one of our favorite activities. I live a short ways from the Adirondack Mountains and Adirondack Park, so the sky’s the limit for hiking opportunities. Earlier this summer I read about a trend that many ADKers find disturbing: too many people are visiting the park. Trailheads are becoming so crowded that visitors create dangerous situations on holidays and weekends as cars spill out onto the roads. Trails and summits are often crowded with throngs of selfie-taking tourists. Perhaps worst of all, inexperienced hikers create medical emergencies by attempting some of the 4,000+ ft. peaks they’ve heard to be “easier” without water, food, or adequate gear, stressing local rescue organizations.

This trend isn’t limited to my region: national parks around the US are becoming overwhelmed with visitors. The 229-square mile Zion National Park in Utah regularly tweets that its parking areas or campgrounds are full. Zion is relatively small for a national park, but it receives 4.3 million visitors per year, as many as Yellowstone in Wyoming, which is fifteen times larger. Parking issues aside, trails in Zion and other parks are now peppered with throngs of people, a sight that disappoints solitude-seeking hikers. Visitors to Zion have to contend with packed charter buses from California and Nevada and often have to wait 1 to 2 hours just to enter the park. And of course, heavy foot traffic leads to ecological damage, especially when many tourists don’t know or care about policies like Leave No Trace.

Bucket lists and social media are commonly cited as reasons for the overcrowding. Early in 2016, for example, Utah’s Office of Tourism started a campaign encouraging a visit to the state’s Mighty Five parks: Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. It was so successful that visiting the Mighty Five is now common on European and Asian bucket lists, causing a huge uptick in traffic. Social media is self-explanatory: a hiker takes a crazy selfie on a mountain peak or canyon edge, and like magic all of his or her contacts want the same experience.

This problem is obviously complex, and doesn’t have an easy solution. National parks want visitors, but not to the extent that the parks are destroyed or heavily altered in the process. Building up additional infrastructure like roads and hotels would alleviate congestion problems but also take away from a park’s pristine natural effects. A lottery system has merit as a potential solution. Several popular national park activities—such as a hike up Half Dome in Yosemite or a paddling trip up the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon—use lottery systems to ensure a relatively tranquil experience for visitors.

While overcrowding is recently escalating at parks like Zion and Yosemite, concerns about harmful visitor effects began soon after Yellowstone’s founding in 1872. Early visitors to Yellowstone actually dumped laundry soap into geysers to enhance eruptions. John Muir worried about mixing Yosemite’s fresh air with automobile exhaust. And National Parks Service Director Conrad Wirth wrote this to President Eisenhower over 60 years ago in 1956:

“The problem of today is simply that the parks are being loved to death. They are neither equipped nor staffed to protect their irreplaceable resources, nor to take care of their increasing millions of visitors.

Here is the attendance picture: 358 thousand visitors in 1916; 21 million in 1941; 50 million last year; and by 1966, the parks will have at least 80 million visitors. Are all of these 50 million people finding [...] the unspoiled refreshment they seek and deserve?”

Wirth might be horrified to learn that 307 million visited national parks in 2015. Whether national parks decide to accommodate floods of visitors or take stricter measures like enforcing reservations or lotteries, any solution is a delicate balance.

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#1

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/14/2017 12:12 AM

We just need more bigger parks.......simple

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#2

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/14/2017 10:24 PM

Same answer as most of the world's problems created by human over-population - time for nature to thin the herd BIG TIME!!!!!

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/14/2017 11:05 PM

GA!

Since humans don't seem capable of doing it, then nature must, sooner or later, one way or another.

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#6
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 10:58 AM

How about Lemming National Park. A trail with signs along the way saying "Keep Moving" and ending at the top of a big cliff.

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#7
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 11:07 AM

That's an idea worthy of a Gary Larson cartoon.

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#8
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 11:22 AM

I like Gary Larson.

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#4

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 6:05 AM

Be careful what you wish for.... They push the publicity and then complain that there are too many visitors?
Do I detect the hand of marketing men and accountants?
Del

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#5
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 8:58 AM

"Do I detect the hand of marketing men and accountants?"

No, more like greedy politician. It's easy to mistake the 2 groups, they both smell like rotting fish.

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#9

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 11:57 AM

Is there nothing people won't complain about these days?

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#10
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 2:49 PM

"Nothing" isn't as good as when I was kid... you got good quality nuthin'... if you had nuthin' to do, it was the real good stuff, peace and quiet... these days nuthin' is a all loud and busy, with damn mobile phones.... fades out into incoherent rambling.

Del

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#11
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/15/2017 3:50 PM

It's Okay Del. Some of us still like to use the old school nothings because of simplicity of design.

It's raining today and i have a old school nothing running at full tilt as I type this. Theres a cat sleeping on every chair and I 'm in a recliner listening to the rain fall as I wait for a load of laundry to do it self.

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#12

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/17/2017 7:20 AM

Sounds like an opportunity for private enterprise.

Buy few big farms, remove the European herd animals and then charge admission. Disneyland without the built infrastructure.

Rescue missions charged at "cost plus 25%" might also be a big money spinner, kiosk along the trails with water at $5 (insert absurdly high price) per bottle.

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#13

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/18/2017 11:51 AM

For at least a quarter century, a Wilderness Permit has been required for hiking, backcountry camping and backpacking within the Sierras. Before implementing a permit policy, trailhead parking, and trails were discouraging traffic nightmares with people double parking, blocking roads, and damaging unattended vehicles. Permits made a significant improvement to a bad situation, but can't accomplish the obvious: an exploding population and talk of further cutting National Park budgets and territory in an effort to monetize America.

As for people being unprepared, there is a trail (Palms to Pines) from Palm Springs library that leads from a point near sea level to nearly 10,000ft near San Jacinto Peak and the famed Aerial Tramway. There is no water, it's a difficult trail, and unless it's winter, the lower elevations can become unbearably hot (120F). Hikers regularly start the grade after dawn without food or adequate water and often wind up in desperate need of a rescue. The situation is even worse when toting toddlers and pets.

While a budget for access regulation or escalating maintenance will never get through this Congress, popular parks may have to consider terraced permit fees specific to the activity and provide in-park transportation in lieu of allowing private vehicle traffic into all areas of the park (Zion has done this in areas not affecting through traffic).

Visitor traffic is a problem, but without tourist management and land management that expands some natural resource-poor yet scenically remarkable territory into into the NPS, it's not likely to get better.

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#14
In reply to #13

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/18/2017 12:20 PM

I'd never heard of Palms to Pines but I found this AllTrails info about it:

https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/california/skyline-trail-cactus-to-clouds

Little kids and pets, really? Those people deserve Darwin Awards.

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#15
In reply to #14

Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/18/2017 2:06 PM

Yes, the Darwin Award is perfect since they make choices that would normally be part of a selection process without rescue crews at the ready. Nice avatar, I take it you're either a musician or follower (both are good).

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#16
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Re: Are America's National Parks Too Popular?

09/19/2017 9:34 AM

Yes, I've been a professional organist on the weekend for 2+ years. My formal musical education is in (French) horn performance, with a side focus on theory and history.

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