Our Overflowing Parks

Another record year in visitation strains NPS infrastructure

While flashing back to an impossibly busy summer, Kathleen Gonder describes Bryce Canyon National Park as if under siege: “We’re scrambling just to be able to provide infrastructure — and that means the basics, like clean restrooms and parking,” said Gonder, who is chief of interpretation at the Utah park famous for its colorful, spike-like geological formations called “hoo doos.”

At 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon is among the smallest of the national parks, but it currently ranks 11th in visitation. More than 2.3 million people, and counting, have flocked to the park. Sixty percent of that traffic happened between June and September.

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Bryce Canyon certainly was not alone. Its yearlong 100th birthday celebration exposed the National Park Service — at least major, visible parts of it — as a system bursting at the seams.

The Park Service’s 413 units, which include not only parks, but also battlefields, memorials, parkways and seashores, are well on their way to a third straight record-setting year of attendance. Through November, they’d already plowed through the current record, set in 2015, of 307 million recreational visits, according to preliminary accounting. The agency’s 59 parks, which include national gems like Zion and Acadia, in Maine, are ahead of last year’s pace by 6.5 million visits, the equivalent of the population of Indiana. Thirteen of those parks already are over the 2 million mark in visitation; 11 reached that level last year.

Five national parks — Yosemite, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier – have experienced increases of at least 500,000 visitors more than last year’s totals, according to preliminary figures. In Maine, Acadia falls just under that mark but almost certainly will join that group. Twenty parks already have seen an increase of at least 104,000 visits, the equivalent of cramming the entire city of Richmond, California into each.

And of the 22 national parks that will exceed 1 million visits in 2016, 17 are located in the West.

The extraordinary overcrowding already has produced extraordinary responses. On Memorial Day 2015, the Utah Highway Patrol closed the entrance to Arches National Park in Utah because the line of cars waiting to gain access was over a mile long, creating a traffic hazard as it backed out onto the nearby highway. Zion National Park, also in Utah, is the 18th smallest national park but will finish No. 6 in visits for the second straight year. Park managers and advisory groups are seriously considering visitation capacities.

Zion already has proposed moving and renovating its South Entrance Monument Site, a renowned park feature that is a favorite photographic backdrop for visitors. During the height of summer, visitors commonly wait in long lines to enter the park and board the mandatory park shuttle. Parking routinely is full in the park by 9:30 a.m. In Zion’s main canyon, overcrowding and adverse hiker behavior has created hundreds of unauthorized “social trails,” the unplanned paths created by undesired and usually unauthorized foot traffic, equal to about 35 miles, according to John Marciano, a park spokesperson. There are 14 designated trails in the canyon, equaling about 15 miles. Angels Landing, the park’s most popular trail, has closed twice during the Park Service’s centennial year for graffiti cleaning and the removal by helicopter of human waste and for litter.

But such problems are a product partly of the Park Service’s making. The immense marketing push of the centennial celebrations were helped by an improving U.S. economy, and a period of lower gas prices . Utah produced a highly successful “Mighty 5” campaign that brought a surge in global visitation to Arches, Bryce and Zion, as well as the state’s other national parks, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. The increased visitation, combined with a mounting deferred maintenance ledger now up to about $12 billion has stressed the Park Service infrastructure and staffing. The question will be whether 2016 was an anomaly or a semi-permanent shift for which the National Park Service needs to contemplate dramatic measures.

“We want the Zion experience to remain special for every visitor,” said Jeff Bradybaugh, superintendent at Zion. “At the heart of the National Park Service mission is to conserve park cultural and natural resources in perpetuity. To accomplish both of these, we must resolve issues with crowding, traffic congestion, parking, safety, and impacts to our facilities and resources.”

As for Yosemite National Park, this year has produced staggering increases.. It almost certainly will top 5 million visits for the first time in its history, meaning an attendance increase over last year of at least 700,000. Though Yosemite is the 16th-largest national park, 90 percent of its visits take place in just a corner of the park, Yosemite Valley. It can become an extremely cramped space.

On its busiest days, a projected 8,000 vehicles flow through Yosemite, according to Scott Gediman, the park’s assistant superintendent for public affairs. Such volume can exhaust parking availability and produce gridlock despite an extensive, free shuttle system that operates year-round. Because Yosemite is so remote, it does not turn away visitors, but diverts traffic to less crowded areas, such as Tuolumne Meadows, outside the valley.

Yosemite has been preemptive in its planning. It has increased parking capacity, including a new large lot by Yosemite falls; made numerous road improvements, and expanded its shuttle service into the West Valley and El Capitan areas. The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which has been undergoing renovation since 2015, is scheduled to reopen this summer. The park likely will introduce a separate shuttle system. Further relief should come from a push for public transportation, YARTS (Yosemite Area Rapid Transit System), travel marketers highlighting the off-season appeal of Yosemite, and the park’s continuing efforts to manage public expectations.

But elsewhere, the swelling crowds can be devastating. It’s most profound impacts are on wildlife that increasingly succumb to traffic-related deaths and on the sensitive landscapes that are strained and damaged. National Park Service staff struggles just to keep up.

What falls through the cracks when a park is under siege by dramatically increased visitation? Bryce Canyon’s Kathleen Gonder was quick to answer: “The quality of the experience.”