When businesses around the country shut down over COVID fears, national parks became the new rage, and many of the 423 sites saw historic visitation spikes. But the rush of people also brought an unprecedented amount of behaviors that took a toll on the environment.
Last year alone, the National Park Service (NPS) had close to 300 million recreational visits. Nearly half of those were in just 25 parks. And 44 spots also set visitation records, including Yellowstone National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains.
And while it’s great that the U.S. gained a newfound love of the outdoors, overcrowding brought excessive cars and pollution, which harmed the ecosystem and killed wildlife. The piles of people also created dangerous congestion on trails that lead to more hiking accidents and illegal off-roading trips.
So the NPS has taken to regulating all recreational activities inside the parks. It’s also been denying large events such as a Fourth of July fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. And as the outdoor season kicks back in this year, restrictions will continue.
“It’s disappointing anytime the National Park Service has to restrict access to the parks,” Robert Manning, an expert in parks and outdoor recreation at the University of Vermont, said. “But unfortunately, it seems to be needed more and more today.”
Many National Parks are Requiring Reservations to Control Visitation Spikes
To better control the number of people visiting national parks, some locations are now requiring reservations. Acadia, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Parks are among the seven locations doing so.
Zion National Park will also be tackling the problem by making people get permits before hiking the famous Angels Landing route. And at Arches National Park, visitors will need to book a time before heading out during peak season.
Some of the other ways that NPS is dealing with environmental impacts are by imposing new rules on scenic air tours and banning e-bikes. Because both activities can disrupt “biologically important behaviors,” especially at dusk and dawn.
“The national parks are supposed to be preserved and protected. But the legislation that created the National Park Service also says that the parks are supposed to be used for people’s enjoyment,” Manning added. “Balancing these two objectives has always been difficult.”
However, visitors aren’t the only ones who will have to make changes in order to protect the national parks. The NPS will also have to take some of the burdens by hiring more staff and gaining more funding. As it stands, the agency only has 20,000 permanent employees total. And it’s annual budget only makes up 0.05 percent of the country’s annual federal spending.
“There’s a big gap that needs to be bridged,” Manning says. “The national parks are enormously important, and they need more help.”