The National Parks Reservation Method Gives a Hard Time Getting Going

The National Parks Subcommittee of the Senate held a hearing on July 28 to examine the impact of overcrowding in national parks on NPS resources and visitor experiences. The purpose was to evaluate strategic future approaches to visitor and resource management because most national parks have had record attendance over the last decade.

Recent visiting levels, according to Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, are a “testament to the success of the National Park system,” but they also pose “one of the greatest challenges that the NPS has ever faced.”

From 2013 to 2019, the number of visitors to the parks increased by 20%, from 273 million to 327 million. The Congressional Research Service reported that park workforce shrank by about 14% during the same time period. Experts and park executives are growing concerned that the NPS’s ability to respond to rapidly changing visitor patterns has been harmed and will continue to be harmed as a result of the reduction in manpower.

“Ensuring that visitors have a positive experience in our most popular parks is getting increasingly difficult,” said Michael Reynolds, regional director for the Park Service’s Denver-based Intermountain Region. “Only the top 23 most-visited parks account for half of all recreation visits, with significant congestion focused in the most popular 12 to 15 destination parks.”

“The crowds that naturally come with such high attendance can unintentionally hamper the NPS’s ability to uphold its conservation goal to safeguard and preserve park resources if left unmanaged,” Brengel added.

“I wish there were some sort of non-Hunger Games-style allowance for locals.”

Many of the country’s most popular parks initiated experimental programmes for entry reservation systems in 2020 and 2021, partly as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. During the busiest months of summer and early fall, both Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks implemented reservation requirements for specific time windows and popular roads, while Yosemite took a different approach and required day-use permits for all visitors without campground, wilderness, tour group, or hotel bookings during high season, from May 21 to September 30. These additional limits were meant to improve tourists’ experiences by reducing traffic congestion, parking concerns, and long waits for public services, but their effectiveness has been difficult to assess.

Kelsey Connor, who lives about 30 minutes outside of Rocky Mountain, said, “I wish there was some sort of allowance for local individuals that wasn’t Hunger Games-style.” “It’s a major nuisance in the ass this year, with bookings opening a month in advance and 25% the day before.”

People attempting to register on Recreation.gov have complained that their selected dates sell out within three minutes, even when they log in on time to secure reservations for popular destinations such as Glacier National Park. Ed Boyle, a visitor to Glacier this year, noted that parking at top trailheads is still hit-or-miss since some tourists are crowding into the park outside of the permission window, which runs from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. He also mentioned that the ticket sales began at 8 a.m. Mountain Time, making it more difficult for out-of-state tourists to obtain a pass. “If they released tickets at different times throughout the day, it would give people in different time zones a better chance,” Boyle remarked.

The reviews in Yosemite have been more good. Ray Wrabley compared the new reservation system to the familiar chore of securing coveted concert tickets when he had to cancel his family’s planned trip to Canada last summer. “It was quite easy—and something we were used to—but we would have had a much harder time getting into Yosemite if we hadn’t known we needed reservations that early,” he said. He said the permitted entrance method made the park experience more pleasant once he got inside in July. “We were able to get around without encountering the crowds that we had seen in other national parks.”

“Another option is to create more opportunity for people to visit these incredible spots in our country.”

Many of the country’s most famous parks are already seeing the harmful effects of high visitor numbers on vulnerable ecosystems, signalling that tourist management has to be modified, and soon. Overcrowding has caused concern in Rocky Mountain about rising strain on high-alpine tundra off of Trail Ridge Road. Elk and moose populations in the park are also being driven out of their natural ecological corridors as trail traffic grows. In addition, “multiple, high-profile examples of vandalism of cultural sites, including defacement of Indigenous rock imagery” have been reported in both Arches and Canyonlands, according to Brengel.

A recent hearing before the National Parks Subcommittee raised a number of potential options for dealing with current and future crowding. While Reynolds focused on educating the public and encouraging advanced trip planning through park programmes like #PlanLikeARanger, Brengel offered a longer list of suggestions. Expanding or adjusting infrastructure (roads, trails, parking lots, and restrooms), increasing transportation options (shuttle services, bike, and foot traffic), and raising funding to accommodate a much-needed staffing boost, including addressing a “significant lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity,” were among the recommendations she made in her testimony.

Though Senator Angus King, the Parks Subcommittee’s head, recognised at the start of the July hearing that “there is no one single solution that will fit all of the conditions in our parks,” he did indicate at the end of the discussion that adding more parks might be the solution.

“I want to refer to a passage in Mr. Gartland’s testimony that really stood out to me,” King said of Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish (Montana) Chamber of Commerce. “‘The principles of supply and demand does not apply in this situation. The demand is there, but we can’t just develop more Glacier parks to meet it. Perhaps we should remember that as this committee and its subcommittee explore new park plans across the country… Another option is to create more opportunities for people to visit these incredible spots in our country.’”

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