National Parks; the future is now

I’ve written extensively about US National Parks here; about how they’re the best candidate for helping US culture mature beyond late capitalism, and about how they have failed to keep up with 21st century modes of visitation and as a result are increasingly failing to fulfill the mission given to them 101 years ago.

In the years since I published those pieces things have only gotten worse.  The US population has increased, albeit at a less rapid rate, as has the population of the earth generally, with international visitation being an ever more obvious presence in the parks.  Relatively cheap gasoline has made driving vacations more attractive, and the failure of middle class incomes rebounding since the Great Recession has probably made camping vacations more attractive.  More “millenials” seem to be turning to nature as a recreational venue, if stats from the outdoor industry are to be believed.  Most importantly, the NPS and the states which are home to flagship parks have not messed around when it comes to promotion.  I don’t think people visit parks to merely get their grams, but it would be foolish to discount the power of great landscapes on social media when it comes to this particular subject.

The result has been crowding, on an ever more severe magnitude.  Most parks have set attendance records in the past three years.  Zion, whose geography funnels the vast majority of visitors into 10 miles of canyon, is well into the process of establishing hard quotas for how many visitors can be within the main canyon at any given time.  This summer Glacier began refusing, or at least delaying, entry into the Many Glacier valley and Kintla and Bowman Lakes, after several summers in a row where every parking space were most days gone by mid-morning.  Parks like Grand Canyon are somewhat insulated from the most egregious effects, simply because the South Rim is huge and flat and already has a lot of pavement, but visiting has surely become ever less pleasant, especially for neophytes.  Yellowstone, for all its famous traffic problems, is a huge place that absorbs lots of drivers better than most places.  The most severe evidence of crowding there has come in the form of ever more visitor silliness; the famous bison calf in the car incident last year, as well as multiple “pro” social media folks out wandering beyond boardwalks in thermal areas, one assumes to get better footy.

Things have gotten so serious that even the Chicago Tribune editorial board got in on the action last summer.

The Organic Act of 1916 is not a long law.  Many of its words are given over to establishing a chain of command and the salaries which logically follow.  The paragraphs of substance over which we might argue the state of affairs today are few:

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

In Desert Solitaire Abbey provided one of the more famous, and forceful, formulations of the popular argument that the conservation and enjoyment sides of this mandate often and perhaps inevitably come into conflict.  50 years ago the NPS was deserving of just criticism for catering too much for the later at the expense of the former.  Things mentioned in the “Industrial Tourism..” chapter, such as the road into the Kolob district of Zion and the new entrance road to Arches, became as predicted both fait accompli and small ecological and aesthetic tragedies.  Thankfully the road building excess of the 50s and 60s seems to have taught society a lesson, and the NPS today generally falls on the side of unbuilding, for instance intentionally doing minimal maintenance on the roads to Many Glacier, Bowman, and Kintla in order to naturally reduce traffic.  But that approach has clearly not been enough, and the way in which the NPS provides for the enjoyment of citizen-owners needs to change, drastically, and as soon as possible.

Caught in the grips of crowd control, and chronically underfunded since Gingrich’s 1994 parade of evil/user fee debacle, the NPS has been pushed into a largely reactive management strategy.  In Glacier this has looked like closing the Logan Pass parking lot when it fills up (around 0900 in the summer), and hazing bighorn sheep away from the area to avoid conflicts with users.  In other parks it has looked like building bigger entrance booths, though the one Arches completed (with much local controversy regarding cost) in 2004 did nothing to prevent traffic backing up all the way to the highway only a decade later.  Trying to shoehorn as many willing people in, with as few traffic jams as possible, is not a sustainable or responsible strategy.  I worry that park newbies, who have no reasonable way of knowing that Logan closes so early, that driving through Hayden Valley takes so long, that Springdale has become an extension of Las Vegas, or that the North Rim has better views than the south will be rightfully soured on the park experience, conclude that nature is as commodified as anything else in the 21st century, and move on to the next thing.

The National Parks don’t need more visitors, but they do need better ones.  People with the patience to deal with bison jams and the perspective of taking the whole day to ride the shuttle and see the sights, rather than drive through, tick a box, and rush on to the restaurants and shops of Whitefish or Flagstaff.  It would be perfectly in keeping with the Organic Act for the NPS to be far more explicit in prioritizing certain kinds of visitors, and visitor experiences, over others.  Quality trips, the kind that make a kid a fan for life (as they did me), will have far more impact over the multi-generation life of the parks than another dozen or gross of vehicles over a given pass between nine and five.


Right now is not too soon for this change, because parks are instruments of preservation second and of education first, admitting that the second is not possible without the first.  The humans history and dimension of the parks is as consequential for the parks project as the “natural” aspects, and the sympathy and profoundly misguided outpouring when a historic building is threatened or destroyed is all that evidence required.  The burning of the bunkhouse at Sperry Chalet last night has opened a window into the visitor parks don’t need, those full enough of hubris and empty enough of education to think that the fire could and should have been prevented; by preemptive logging, or unidentified and phantasmagoric human heroics, beyond what already took place.  The parks exist for such education; after all, how large a percentage of the world has never seen a climax forest with their own eyes, to say nothing of one at 6500′.  But prioritizing those who are less likely to see such things, by walking a bit further or looking at bit longer, is nothing less than a waste of money, and more importantly, time.


9 responses to “National Parks; the future is now”

  1. So what is your proposal or thinking about how to create, grow, or cull a better NPS visitor? Lottery? Give them a patience and curiosity test? I’m not disagreeing with you. Just wanting to think some more of this out loud

    1. It has been my experience that when comparing (for example) the average July Isle Royale visitor to the average July Glacier visitor the former has more time, is more patient, and is better educated (in terms of experience in the natural world). This is an extreme example given the logistical and financial barriers to entry at Isle Royale, and it is far from a lock that these characteristics would reliably generalize to being interested in education and eventually advocacy, but some basic social science research could sort out that connection. Easily farmed out to a few grad programs at UM.

      In terms of Glacier my personal plan hasn’t changed in the 5 years since I published the article linked to above. Making Glacier cheaper, making it less friendly to cars, and making the backcountry much more accessible (in terms of skill, not distance) would be my guess make for a self-selecting enough group that the job in question would be done. Another idea, to get things started, would be to ban all public parking between Rising Sun and Lake McDonald lodge. You could drive that stretch, but to stop and hike you’d need to bike or ride the shuttle. The shuttles would have to get a bit better still for this to be viable, but the NPS has taken good strides in the past 3 years.

      Other parks are more challenging. Yellowstone, for instance, where it is vastly less obvious how one restricts vehicles without really inhibiting visitor engagement. Yosemite, Arches, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon all need to suck it up, ban vehicles, and move forward with some sort of public transport scheme. Yosemite should have had some kind of light rail decades ago. Zion, sadly, will probably need to go forward with a reservation/quota system and actually decrease both the number of visitors and the number of shuttles running. Perhaps cut the shuttles significantly, and have a separate bike-only cue which promotes human-powered visitation.

  2. The obvious answer to the National Park system crowding is to make public school go year round. Then different districts with different needs will split the 3 months of summer break up differently throughout the year and it will allow families to take 2 week road trips in April, or May to see the Grand Canyon, and in September or October to see Glacier… there will still be lots of visitation in the summer, and still lots of foreign visitation then too – but it will allow a large block of middle class kids to get into the parks during the shoulder seasons, while also improving our school system… seems easy enough to me :)

    Also – I would adapt Dave’s No Parking on Going to the Sun Road rule to a 20 minute parking limit… this way small children and old folks can still stop and pee! Plus we just paid to rebuild the road with lots of pull outs, no point in banning people from pulling out! PLUS – I really don’t want drivers trying to take pictures while they are moving, which they will if they’re not allowed to pull over! AND – Glacier will end up with the equivalent of Bear Jams, except they will be Scenery Jams, were people will slow down so much the road will be essentially unusable… gotten let people pull over! Just not for long! Plus the fines for the folks who park for too long will help pay for more shuttles!

  3. The year-round school concept is one I’ve never heard, Meredith. Kudos, it’s quite brilliant. Considering a good majority of Park visitors are undoubtedly American families some form of “forced” dispersion (whether school scheduling or similar) is excellent thinking.

    1. To say nothing of being good academic and social policy. The agrarian school year has no purpose in the 21st century.

  4. I have also witnessed the insane hype that is national parks. People want to go to national parks because they are labeled as national parks, even for backcountry use. A good example would yosemite. I consider the yosemite backcountry to be very average for the high sierra but everyone talks about “backpacking in yosemite” likes it’s the ultimate backcountry desination and the rapid booking of permit reservations shows it. Emigrant wilderness (national forest) which borders it to the north, while it gets substantial use near the trailheads, is relatively desolate compared to yosemite. It’s the same thing with zion vs. grand escalante. There is a common goal that many people have to check off all the boxes and visit all of the national parks, just because being labeled as a national park is something special to them.

    I really do appreciate the national parks like sequoia/kings canyon that are primarily backcountry with roads that end at visitor centers in uninspiring forests.

  5. A paradigm shift for the 21st century, exactly. There are more people, backpackers, climbers, bikers, car campers, RVers etc. and a thoughtful plan could be developed with vision and leadership. It will take a commitment and funding. And my hope is that more, not less land, millions of acres be set aside, now.

  6. […] wilderness visits as a percentage of overall visitors peaked (in most parks) the NPS has done nothing systemic to grapple with this.  Quantity of visitation has been put first, with attention to quality only […]

  7. […] is simply the catalyst, or excuse, to put this into practice.  It is past time.  As I wrote four years ago, the park service has for decades been failing in its full mission, providing a volume of […]

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