Here’s Why You Better Get Used to Crowded National Parks

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In September 1980, then-superintendent of Yosemite National Park, Robert O. Binnewies, signed a plan to radically reduce traffic and visitors, in an effort to help restore the Yosemite Valley ecosystem. His proposal called for the elimination of 1,242 day-parking spots, 268 cabins and cottages, 116 campsites, and 1,030 employees housed on site—a drastic move. But one that came because of sweeping legislation passed by congress two years prior. 

The law tasked the National Park System (NPS) with identifying carrying capacities for each park in its purview and, among its mandates, also charged park superintendents, like Binnewies, to identify and act when the public was causing “unacceptable impacts” to park resources. So that’s what Binnewies did. His plan didn’t get very far. It was quickly shelved after its release, owing, in part, to commercial pressure from the potential loss of patronage. Park attendance, meanwhile, continued to rise. The Los Angeles Times reported that just four years after Binnewies introduced his plan, the Yosemite Valley suffered its worst traffic jam ever, on Memorial Day, 1984, with some 7,500 vehicles gridlocked for up to four hours. That year, 2,738,000 people visited Yosemite.

Twenty-two years later, in 2016, the number topped 5 million.

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There have been numerous efforts to curb or disperse visitation across the NPS system in the years since, but few have stuck. The number of people flocking to our national parks, meanwhile, has grown exponentially. Last year, a record 33.1 million people visited the 59 national parks, eclipsing the previous record of 23.7 million, set in 2015. Over the past several years, park officials, struggling to deal with the crippling crowds, have again floated the idea of setting visitor caps, an effort currently led by Zion National Park, which is toying with a permit or reservation system, similar to those in effect in select wilderness areas. A growing number of advocates agree that visitor caps or day passes would make for a more pleasant park experience and relieve wear on the environment, but the NPS has been hesitant to enact such policies at its major parks.

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—which represents U.S. rangers, game wardens, and land managers—has criticized the NPS for having not already limited visitorship, as Congress mandated in the late 1970s, the same mandate Robert O. Binnewies was trying to follow in Yosemite. Some critics argue that the NPS is breaking the law by not capping visitation. The NPS maintains, however, that establishing carrying capacities, as stipulated by the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, and limiting visitors are not the same. It says it enforces carrying capacities not by curbing park visitation but by monitoring the flow of people to certain attractions and sites, limiting the number of people allowed on trails, and similar crowd-management methods.

But why the pushback against visitation caps? The NPS has, by and large, chosen to manage its burgeoning crowds, rather than roll out caps or scheduling systems, out of civic duty. NPS spokesperson Jeffrey Olson told me Monday that, despite criticism about overcrowded parks, NPS officials feel responsible to let as many visitors as possible have access to and enjoy these spaces, since they, after all, belong to the public.

“We don’t ever intend to limit the number of visitors,” he said. “We’re trying to limit visitor use.”

The NPS has thus taken steps to improve infrastructure to mitigate the crowds’ environmental effects. Olson described how many parks have redesigned parking lots and roads and improved shuttle-bus services to help the flow of people in high-traffic areas and reduce wear on the park. The NPS also hopes to spread out visitation throughout the year to offset congestion during peak months. NPS feels that with these efforts and others it is effectively limiting use but not visitation.

Though visitor caps are not “anything we want to do,” Olson did say that, if other means of crowd control fail to alleviate congestion, parks may explore other options, like Zion considering whether to cap visitation. Addressing concerns about whether overcrowding was harming park resources, Olson said that the NPS’s chief directive is to preserve parks for future generations while promoting visitation. He also said the service will respond appropriately to any complaints about the destruction of resources.

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Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and raises money for the NPS, told me Monday that a handful of big-name parks accounted for more than 50 percent of total visitation last year. Many lesser-known parks, he said, haven’t experienced the same degree of overcrowding. System-wide visitor caps, as some have called for, would make little sense, in his opinion, given that, in many places, crowds simply aren’t a problem. That said, to reduce the crowds at popular locations, the National Park Foundation is now encouraging the public to explore less-trafficked areas managed by the NPS, such as Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming.

When asked why the NPS has been slow to introduce visitor caps and similar measures at high-trafficked parks, Shafroth responded, simply, that change is hard. “The NPS is trying to find the best solution and sometimes that’s not obvious,” he said. “People have been used to doing things a certain way for a long time” and deciding to limit visitation options is tough. But, he said, people have grown more accustomed to scheduling their outings, thanks to systems like Disney’s Fastpass. So implementing more scheduling systems at parks wouldn’t be “a big stretch of behavior” for future visitors and would make for a better park experience.

Should Zion make headway with its plan to introduce visitor caps, it stands to reason that it could inspire other overcrowded parks to do the same. But, given the pace at which the NPS moves, it’s unlikely that such a system-wide shift would take place anytime soon.

A spokesperson confirmed that Zion National Park, for one, is not considering daily visitation limits, though its traffic can still be a nightmare. Assuming, then, that visitor trends don’t shift, our national parks will continue to swell each summer, until, presumably, something drastic is done, as in Zion. Reflecting on his time at the NPS, Robert O. Binnewies, in his 2015 book, Your Yosemite, writes, “The planning choices were many; none of them easy.”

How many miles of road were needed? he wonders. How should traffic be controlled? Where should the humans be? “And, bottom line,” he writes, “what was the capacity that would match people with a matchless place?” This is a question that the NPS has still yet to answer.  

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