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Desperate for fresh air after their long months of COVID-19 lockdowns, Americans are continuing to descend on U.S. National Parks like locusts. As a result, the National Park Service (NPS) is struggling to manage crowds and mitigate the deleterious effects of overtourism on its lands while maintaining the integrity of the visitor experience.

Such overcrowding brings traffic jams, parking problems, long wait times for park entry, as well as increased vandalism, littering, trail erosion and other environmental injuries to park lands.

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According to Lonely Planet, the NPS saw over 32 million visitors to national parks during the month of July. That may be just under the record-setting 33 million that arrived during the same period in 2020, but these inflated numbers are very often more than the parks’ limited staff and funding can handle.

The urgency of the nationals parks’ shared conundrum prompted a July 28 hearing, held by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the purpose of which was, “to review the impacts of overcrowding in our national parks on park resources and visitor experiences, and to consider strategic approaches to visitor use management,” as stated on the Senate subcommittee’s website.

“The growth in visitation is posing one of the greatest challenges NPS has ever faced,” said Kristen Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.

“It’s great to see so many Americans take advantage of these parks; that is, after all, why we protect these lands in the first place,” said committee chairman Angus King (I-ME). “However, at the same time, we must recognize that overcrowding in the parks itself can degrade the natural resources and wildlife that these units are designed to protect. We can accidentally love our parks to death.”

“I know there is a path forward that we can build through collaboration and input from the local level,” King said, per The Spectrum’s report. “We don’t have a predetermined solution…we’re starting this hearing with a predetermined problem that we want to address on behalf of the American people.”

With the influx of visitors having begun last year, the NPS and some individual parks have already adopted measures to mitigate overcrowding, including requiring reservations or instituting timed entry systems. Some have started running shuttle buses to cut down on the number of cars entering park lands, although this resulted in up to four-hour wait times for shuttles at Zion this summer. Dispersal, or rerouting visitors from overcrowded parks to less-visited ones within the same state, has served as another strategy.

The parks’ current problems won’t likely be limited to this summer season., “There is no reason to believe increased visitation will let up anytime soon,” Brengel said. “The changing nature of visits and visitors to parks due to the pandemic, increasing types of recreation, climate change, extended shoulder seasons and shrinking off-seasons, and the increase in remote work opportunities mean many parks are likely to continue to see increasing visitation in the coming years.”

Regarding the escalating incidents of graffiti and vandalism in national parks, she said, “This undesirable and harmful visitor behavior suggests unprepared visitors are recreating in parks and evidences a need for more opportunities for visitors to interact with rangers and encounter effective educational messaging.”

Unfortunately, there arises another hurdle because, as Brengel pointed out, the NPS is already underfunded and understaffed. Spread thin and faced with such massive operational challenges, park employees find themselves forced to defer maintenance and unable to attend to uphold conservation commitments. “Left unmanaged, the crowds that naturally come with such high visitation might unintentionally hinder the ability of the NPS to uphold its conservation mission to protect and preserve park resources,” Brengel argued.

“The intersectional challenges of climate change, outdated infrastructure, and increased visitation on our public lands demand a coordinated response,” she emphasized. While it’s not yet clear what actions the committee will take to address parks’ overtourism, all attendees at the hearing were adamant that something must be done.





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