Parks: Love Them and Leave Them?

Well, another story about the national parks breaking down. Another story lamenting that “tourists are loving nature to death,” as the headline puts it. The article (published in multiple papers) documents a stream of thoughtless tourist actions, from literally leaving their shit on the ground to engaging in fistfights over parking spots. As such stories are wont to do, this one reminds us of the estimated $11B backlog in upkeep in the parks.

While nearly none of this is new, this article does tab a couple of new culprits. One is Snapchat and Instagram, where people now can find from geotags where scenic spots are and trek to them. Another, related, problem is the selfie, which has led to deaths and injuries as people scramble closer to cliff edges or wildlife.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that, once again, the reporters missed (ahem) the forest for the trees. The tone of the reporting repeats the mantra, too many people.  But a graph in the piece reveals that this is misleading: in 1987, 287 million visited the 305 units in the national park system. This capped a near exponential rise in visitation the previous 3 or 4 decades. That number was only exceeded in 2014, 27 years later and after 65 new units were added to the park system. The article talks about how challenging traffic is in Estes Park.  GG drives through there lots virtually every year in the past 25 years, and frankly, it has always been bad. Although there is no doubt that the starvation diet that the Park Service has been on for about 50 years has led to decay of services and facilities, the reality is that most of the current problems are not simply numbers. So what might be behind the concerns voiced in the article?

Now GG has beaten on this horse a bit before, but let’s try this again.  How different are 2018 visitors versus 1987 visitors? They camp, they pull out in pullouts and take pictures, they buy tchotchkes with park emblems on them. Now maybe there are differences in how many camp or use buses or ride bikes, but frankly the differences are small.  GG has noticed a strong increase in off-season visitation, but that too is probably mostly in the noise.

No, it doesn’t seem to be what they do nearly so much as where they do it. And this is where this latest article provides some insight. Just as GG lamented the focus on the John Muir Trail to the exclusion of other trails, this article points to certain spots going, in essence, viral. Now this isn’t truly new–visitors to Yosemite had seen Ansel Adams photographs and sought out some of his spots, most notably Tunnel View in Yosemite. But generally speaking, visiting a park in the past was more of a voyage of discovery than a search for the exact same photograph you found on somebody’s social media. Even if you were seeking certain well-known vistas, the fact was that they had ben well known for a long time and had parking lots and access trails and the like. The backcountry was much the same–you weren’t going to get major plaudits for hiking the Muir Trail or the PCT (and most folks lacked the time anyways) so different groups might go in different directions.

But if this social media thing was the cause, wouldn’t all the parks see this?  In fact, wouldn’t the really urban parks see it even more? So, are all the parks seeing this massive increase, or just certain parks that make bucket lists?  Consider these numbers from the Park Service’s statistics site:

Park 1987 2012 2015 2017
Yosemite 3.1 3.8 4.2 4.3
Grand Canyon 3.5 4.4 5.5 6.3
Yellowstone 2.6 3.4 4.1 4.1
Rocky Mountain 2.5 3.2 4.2 4.4
Zion 1.8 3.0 3.6 4.5
TOTAL 13.5 17.9 21.6 23.6
All parks 287 283 307 331
% these 5 4.7 6.3 7.0 7.1

These five western parks that represented 4.7% of total visitation in 1987 accounted for 20% of the 44 million additional visitors in 2017 compared to 1987. Add in Glacier and Grand Teton and you pick up yet another 3.5 million on top of the 1987 tally of 3.1 million. The other main Colorado Plateau attractions-Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Natural Bridges–have more than doubled, from 4.3 in 1987 to 9.5 million visitors in 2017. (In fact, tossing in Zion and the Grand Canyon and you go from 9.6 to 20.3 million) Eastern parks, in contrast, have been nearly stagnant:

Park 1987 2012 2015 2017
Acadia 4.3 2.4 2.8 3.5
Great Smoky Mountain 10.2 9.7 10.7 11.3
Everglades 0.8 1.1 1.1 1.0
Blue Ridge Parkway 18.6 15.2 15.1 16.1
Gettysburg 1.3 1.1 1.1 1.0
Total 35.2 29.6 30.7 33.0
Percent of NPS total 12.3 10.4 10.0 10.0

Clearly it is not the whole park system that is stressed, despite the tone of the reporting.  It is particular areas that are booming–and these seem to be in the parts of the country where population growth has been most, in the western U.S. This is also terrain–especially the Colorado Plateau parks and Yellowstone–that foreigners find the most unique and worthy of travel.

Thus the relatively modest increase in overall visitation is amplified in the parks receiving all the attention; not surprisingly, this is where the reporters who worked on this story focused. But a better appraisal would have considered a broader view.

Now the article ends with one possible solution to overcrowding: requiring reservations, as Muir Woods now does. This quest to avoid overcrowding isn’t new either: Yosemite shut down several roads in the 1980s. Zion closed the main canyon to cars except for those staying in the canyon; everybody else has to park in a huge parking area and take a shuttle. Rocky Mountain has for several years closed the road to Bear Lake many days in the summer, forcing visitors on to shuttles, sometimes all the way back in Estes Park. Yosemite actually had planned for some time to build parking in El Portal and ban cars from the valley floor; they have closed the park on a few very busy days in the past, but the outcry has led to some insane traffic jams. Again, the massive increase in visitation in the 70’s and 80’s had basically broken the resources in many parks; the relatively small additional numbers in the past 4 years have just further burdened already strained facilities.

Frankly, for a major report authored by multiple reporters, this was kind of shabby. There is no hint they realized that what they were seeing was not systemwide. Nor is there a solid sense of history of the past 30-40 years of eroding financial support; years ago campgrounds were free if there was no running water. Today you can spend $20 a night for the privilege of bringing your own water to a site. Paying an entrance fee to part of a National Forest never happened 30 years ago, but now it is commonplace. The small government mantra started by the Reagan administration has, for better or worse, greatly impacted the national public lands. Pretending that the degraded experience in parks is a new thing is disingenuous. This report could have been so much more illuminating….

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