National Parks Are Overcrowded and Underfunded. But Here’s Why There’s Reason for Hope

Yosemite, above, saw 4.1 million visitors in 2018. But the park also knows how to handle the influx, and the backcountry is mostly as pristine—and uncrowded—as ever.
Yosemite, above, saw 4.1 million visitors in 2018. But the park also knows how to handle the influx, and the backcountry is mostly as pristine—and uncrowded—as ever.Mihai P / Getty Images

ON A COOL January day this year, retired National Park Service director Jon Jarvis drove to Point Reyes National Seashore in California to survey the effects of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Upon his arrival, Jarvis found that a colony of roughly 60 elephant seals had taken over the parking lot at Drakes Beach. Some of the males, which can grow to 6,000 pounds and are known as “beachmasters,” were bumping cars in a show of aggression.

Normally, park workers and docents keep the seals at bay, but due to the shutdown—and the controversial decision to keep the parks open with a skeleton staff, which ran contrary to the last prolonged shutdown—there weren’t enough workers to deter them. “Nature didn’t shut down during that period,” Jarvis recalls. “It just did its thing.” The scene was an apt metaphor for the state of national parks as a whole: Despite our ineptitude—or indifference—with protecting them, things keep moving along.

If you’ve read the news in the past few years, you may have heard that our national parks are in crisis, suffering from budget shortfalls, overcrowding, and noxious Instagrammers trampling the landscape. Which is all true. During the shutdown, for example, visitors took advantage of fewer rangers on duty to create illegal roads through the desert at Joshua Tree. They left trash and human waste in heaps at Yosemite. Essentially, they ran amok through some of America’s most treasured public lands.

The shenanigans also came on top of a much-publicized $11.9 billion maintenance backlog, which has resulted in crumbling infrastructure at some parks. The backlog is the result, in part, of a decade-long decline in the NPS budget, a total of 17 percent over 10 years. President Trump recently proposed cutting it even further, by $500 million—an unlikely but telling prospect, according to Jarvis. “That’s the kind of budget where, if there was a director”—which the Park Service hasn’t had since Jarvis retired, a week before Trump’s inauguration—“he would walk upstairs and say, OK, which of the following parks would you like me to close?”

All of these dire developments, though, mask a larger reality: Good news is on the horizon. If all goes as expected, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act will make its way through Congress this summer, allocating $5 billion to the National Park Service to tackle the most pressing needs in the maintenance backlog. These include the Grand Canyon’s leaky water pipeline, which was built in the 1960s, and the crumbling roads at Everglades National Park, which will cost $47 million to fix. The figure is less than half of the total backlog, but not everything on the list is urgent. (One park staffer compared it to how much of your home-improvement list actually has to be done right now.) If the bill passes, experts say, it would make a noticeable difference and begin steering parks in the right direction.

The other issue that’s received a fair bit of attention, but is often spun in a negative light, is overcrowding. Indeed, visitation is at record highs. In 2015, for the first time, more than 300 million people visited a national park. That total has been exceeded each year since and is likely to be surpassed again this year, thanks to low unemployment and reasonable gas prices.

But the NPS has become increasingly innovative with ways to handle those crowds. At Acadia National Park in Maine—the seventh-most popular park in the country, with 3.5 million annual visitors—people are often turned away due to insufficient parking at the most popular sites. “The status quo was no longer working here,” says David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia. So the park studied and then overhauled the transportation plan over a three-year period. Starting in 2021, guests will be able to reserve parking spots at Cadillac Mountain and Sand Beach. Zion has a free and effective bus system, as does Yosemite, and other parks are making similar changes to deal with their own boom in visitors.

The “loving our parks to death” narrative stands in stark contrast to another salient fact: Visitor satisfaction across the system remains extremely high. Overcrowding, experts will tell you with a sigh, is not a resource problem—it’s a distribution problem. The backcountry is still mostly empty, even if park roads are gridlocked. “I could take you to Yosemite Valley on the Fourth of July and, give me 15 minutes, I can have you by yourself,” Jarvis says. “You’ve just got to know where to go.” Or have more rangers on staff to help people figure it out.

“It’s not as bad as everybody’s been saying—the sky is not falling,” says Mike Gauthier, superintendent of Nez Perce National Historical Park, in Idaho. Recently, in Yosemite, where Gauthier spent seven years as chief of staff, the Merced River opened to whitewater boating for the first time and bighorn sheep returned to their alpine habitat thanks to a restoration effort. Similar initiatives have been introduced across the NPS.

The crowds at Zion: They're not fun to deal with, but it's a clear sign of increased support for national parks.
The crowds at Zion: They’re not fun to deal with, but it’s a clear sign of increased support for national parks. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

This also comes at a time when public land has seen a resurgence in support from grassroots Democrats and Republicans. The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act will come on the heels of the most significant conservation bill in a decade, the Dingell Act, which supported parks and passed resoundingly in February: 92-8 in the Senate and 363-62 in the House.

“There are no bills that pass like that,” says Kristen Brengle, vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “But it shows the power of parks and public lands.” As does the fact that private funding has increased: Before 2013, the National Park Foundation’s (NPF) biggest fundraising year was $25 million. That number quadrupled over the next four years, and donor interest remains strong, says NPF president Will Shafroth.

“We have this dichotomy going on,” says Mark Butler, former superintendent of Joshua Tree. “The political actions have been disconnected from public preferences.”

This is not to say, of course, that things are perfect, or that they couldn’t get worse. But with continued support, the future is looking bright. “I think people need to let their member of Congress know that the national parks are important,” says Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which comprises former NPS employees. “And they want the national parks to be taken care of, by going from 1/16th of 1 percent of the federal budget, which they get now, to 1/15th of 1 percent or 1/14th of 1 percent. That would make a huge difference.”

So would even more people visiting a park this summer. “You don’t love something to death. You love it to life,” Jarvis says. “And if we can maintain that love with the American people, then I think the future of the Park Service is actually good.”

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