Overwhelmed by rising attendance, national parks are grappling with how to both cater to visitors and protect their lands.
Growing up near Glacier National Park in the 1990s, I remember my parents deciding on a whim to take my siblings and me there one weekend. With lunch pails in tow and backpacks that allowed them to haul a kid or two along for the ride, they could easily find parking in the Avalanche area on a Saturday afternoon. Today, due to rising park attendance across the country, they might not have been so lucky.
As a teenager growing up in Montana, I used to resent the fact that I lived in “the middle of nowhere.” At that age, I could think of nothing better than to escape to a place where more was happening. To me, Montana seemed removed from the rest of the world. Sure, it was a kind of Eden, but it was one I begged to be expelled from. If I had known then that the area of my youth would one day be “discovered,” I might have felt differently.
Over the past few years, visitation to Montana’s Glacier National Park has exploded. Each year, a new record for park attendance is broken while the small nearby towns swell with incoming tourism. This year, Glacier National Park has implemented a new ticketing system that is in part due to social distancing measures brought on by COVID-19, and a way for the park to better handle the rising influx of visitors. Doug Mitchell, who is the Executive Director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, has seen the park overwhelmed by guests in the past few years.
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“Historically, Glacier Park was known as a ‘hikers’ park.’ [It was] a place experienced national park visitors might visit after having gone to a few other parks,” explains Mitchell. “Now—particularly with the rising interest in seeing the glaciers of the park before they are gone—we are getting more visitors for whom a trip to Glacier marks their first visit to a national park. That’s a great thing, but it also changes the way the park has to think about education, interpretation, and resource protection to make sure everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience in a way that respects and protects the ecosystem that makes Glacier Park special.”
Rising attendance numbers aren’t something just happening at Glacier National Park. During the height of the pandemic, an unprecedented number of Americans began appreciating their national parks as a way to escape the confines of quarantine. Yellowstone National Park saw a 2% increase in visitation numbers, and there are similar statistics for many of the other national parks scattered throughout the United States. Will increased interest in visiting our national parks harm the very places we’ve come to appreciate this year?
I often share information about the national parks with my following and was shocked at how many people were angry about the new ticketing systems being adopted to stave off crowds. There was a clear sense of entitlement that I found disturbing. Why did travelers feel as though these natural spaces owed them anything? And even worse, did visitors not recognize the impact of their presence in these sacred places (and in some cases, religiously sacred to Indigenous peoples)? Public lands were created for people to visit and as a way to preserve these vital areas.
“I would hope, for all of us, it would begin with embracing the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethic. That’s a great place to start and would make great strides in reducing the kind of resource damage that then requires restoration and repair,” adds Mitchell. “Wallace Stegner famously said: ‘National Parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American. Absolutely democratic. They reflect us at our best rather than our worst.’ Our challenge then is to be our best.”
Remembering the original intent of the National Park System might mean some sacrifice on the part of visitors today. It might mean doing more research into what is open and what is not. It might mean forgoing specific sites in an effort to help them recover from the effects of over-tourism. It could mean looking to state parks and national forests as places to recreate. Most of all, it may mean looking at the parks as an investment in our future, rather than as places meant to offer immediate gratification.
I recently biked the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, an architectural marvel that winds itself through the park and—up until recently—had been closed to cars. Not many people I know, including locals, choose to bike up at the 5% gradient because it is challenging. My muscles scolded me the entire ride up as I wondered why I didn’t just wait until I could let a vehicle do the hard work for me. But the moments I had to myself—without other bikers, tourists, and cars — reminded me of how impermanent I am.
The presence of the mountains was overwhelming and comforting at the same time. It wasn’t easy to make the extra effort to appreciate the “Crown of the Continent,” but maybe we should ask a little bit more of ourselves since nature very rarely makes demands of us. As John Muir once said, “To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion one thousand times over.” Our national parks are worth that extra effort and love.