Overcrowding at our national parks is bad this summer but will likely get worse, as visitors from foreign countries are able to return in coming months. Yet, the National Park Service has no coherent plan to address overcrowding despite clear, longstanding statutory mandates that it do so, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
This summer some major parks, such as Yellowstone, Zion, and Acadia, are eclipsing record pre-pandemic visitation levels. This surge is not confined to “brand name” parks but has engulfed units such as Big South Fork, Assateague, Cape Hatteras, and Cedar Breaks National Monument.
What makes these rising numbers more ominous is that they do not include international tourists who had made up a major and growing portion of national park visitation. Foreign travelers constituted up to 40% of Grand Canyon and 20% of Yosemite visitors in recent years. Overall, a travel industry survey found they accounted for nearly 14 million visitors per year.
Since the 1978 National Parks and Recreation Act, the NPS has been under a legal mandate to develop and adopt “carrying capacities” in all units to protect both park resources and the visitor experience from the adverse effects of excessive crowds. Yet very few parks have done so.
“Our national park system has no overall strategy for coping with crippling overcrowding,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting the damaging effects to park vegetation and wildlife from bigger crowds pushing farther into park backcountry. “The popularity of our national parks may be one of the biggest threats to the system – a threat that is likely to grow.”
This problem is aggravated not just by the years-long absence of a confirmed NPS Director but by a generation-long drift away from park planning. Today, most major parks lack a statutorily required general management plan which is supposed to contain carrying capacities. The combined effect of lack of leadership and a system-wide aversion to planning can be seen in –
- Individual parks, such as Rocky Mountain and Arches, developing reservation systems or other stop-gap measures with no political, logistical, or technical support from DC;
- A lame-duck January 2021 NPS directive to encourage planning, including carrying capacities, has been utterly ignored; and
- Even the Secretary of Interior cannot locate annual reports she is supposed to make to Congress on the state of national park planning.
“Without a serious recommitment to planning, our national park system will simply drift, putting our icons and crown jewels at risk of being steadily devalued from unchecked overuse,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch. “Congress is also responsible because it has not seriously examined whether the prudent measures it enacted decades ago have become dead letters.”