National Parks; the future is still now

The national parks are crowded, or rather, they have been.  The pandemic reduced and altered visitation in potentially unexpected ways which are worth pondering.  Anecdotally, visitation is back close to or has exceeded the previous records, which were generally set in the latter half of the last decade.  This seems to be the COVID outdoor boom complimenting and exacerbating the already-in-progress parks and hiking boom, itself set in motion by the yet to be fully quantified combination of social media culture, industrial tourism, and urban malaise.

Glacier National Park has, this summer, been both an exception and an adherent to this trend.  This spring Glacier responded to government COVID policy, pandemic related staffing challenges, and the long standing crowding issues in the park with a ticketed entry and shuttle bus system.  Advanced tickets are required to go through either of the main park entrances between 0600 and 1700, and additional tickets are required to ride the shuttle buses which service Going to the Sun Road, and have historically made parking and point to point dayhikes easier to manage.  The number of total tickets made available in unclear, with the park claiming various numbers at various times, and suggesting the totals may be revised upwards as possible.  The caveat, which the park service was strident in advertising, has been that they did not anticipate parking shortages in popular areas to be much addressed by the tickets, rather they were attempting to prevent the cluster of last summer, when cars backed the .86 of a mile to the highway, with safety concerns requiring road closures

The tickets entry system appears to have exceeded expectations here.  M and I visited the park on a weekly basis from 2010 to 2016, when we lived in either Whitefish or Kalispell, and have never seen parking along the road as widely available as it has been in the past month.  Traffic in the park generally appears to be reduced, as well.  We’ve found mid-day weekend parking at Logan (not Logan’s) Pass on multiple occasions with less than 5 minutes of circling, ready parking at Sunrift Gorge at 1000 on a Sunday, and scored a campsite at Two Medicine having arrived just before noon on a Saturday.  Conclusive evidence this is not, but for me also far exceeds the threshold of the mere anecdote.  Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a broadly similar system this summer, and other parks with similar crowding and traffic issues, such as Arches, are considering it.

Glacier has been quite candid that the pandemic 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 experiences increasingly lacking in quality and depth.  This is a global phenomenon, with places as diverse as Venice and New Zealand publicly debating how to make tourism a sustainable basis for their economies and ways of life.  The NPS’ mandate is not explicitly financial, but visitor management will be intimately tied to the policies and futures of the states and communities in which the parks reside.  No one, no one who can find a room or table that is, will prefer the Springdale, UT of today to the one of 15 years ago.  Crowding in the front country flattens the economy of a place into sameness, plain, efficient, reassuring, sameness.  The same crowding in the backcountry takes away, past a certain point, the unhuman novelty from which parks (and wild places, generally) get their appeal.

The question now is which way forward.  In Glacier, lots of people are protesting, about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else, or loosing money to the tourists that go somewhere more “free.”  This is the myopic American ideal of freedom, which can’t see out of its cloud well enough to avoid large trees.  My hope is that the NPS will continue their current path, and let the details evolve while the assumption of limited, higher quality visitation slowly becomes taken for granted.

5 Comments

  1. “…about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else…” Couldn’t agree more. There are still plenty of places left that are amenable to “spontaneous” travel (but you still need to do some planning) but such is no longer the case at our most popular national parks.

  2. God I hope you’re right. I live right next to the Smokies, and it’s an absolute hell hole in 9 months out of the year. I wish they would even just charge admission to it to see if it would help.

  3. You’re hopeful here, now. But, I was on both sides of GNP Memorial weekend and disagree with your prognosis.
    And didn’t you also once upon a time.

    “ conclude that nature is as commodified as anything else in the 21st century, and move on to the next thing.”

    Maybe that move on is our best hope.

    Camber’s right.

  4. We have seen the same approach in Texas (very little public land) with state parks. The actual “in park” experience is greatly improved with limited day passes. For the NPS, my sense is that the crowding problems are greater than just a few big name parks and the crowds are adversely affecting communities near park entrances. My family floated the Hoh River in Olympic this summer and our guide said that the 2+ hour vehicle lines to the park started in 2019 and now regularly prevent people who live near the park from even getting to their homes for most days in the summer.

    1. One of the big variables for the future is how much park quotas will diminish crowding in gateway communities. Our experience this summer has been the traffic east of the divide in Glacier has been much reduced, while the west, accessible to the good-enough-even-if-you-can’t-get-in-the-park Flathead Valley (and Whitefish especially) are still very busy. The Fish let The Bachelor come to town and has generally marketed itself to the hilt; so you get what you pay for.

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