The National Parks Reservation System Is Off to a Bumpy Start

On July 28, the Senate’s National Parks Subcommittee held a hearing to review the impact that overcrowding in national parks is having on NPS resources and visitor experiences. Because most national parks have seen record attendance for the past decade, the goal was to consider strategic future approaches to visitor and resource management.

Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, cited recent visitation numbers as a “testament to the success of the National Park system” but also warned that this growth in parks travelers is posing “one of the greatest challenges that the NPS has ever faced.”

From 2013 to 2019, park visitation grew 20 percent, from roughly 273 million to 327 million guests. During that same time period, the Congressional Research Service estimated that park staff shrunk almost 14 percent. There is growing concern among experts and park leadership that this decline in personnel has and will continue to diminish the ability of the NPS to address the quickly evolving visitation patterns.

“Ensuring visitors have enjoyable experiences is becoming increasingly challenging in our most popular parks,” said Michael Reynolds, regional director for the Park Service’s Denver-based Intermountain Region. “Half of all recreation visits are occurring at only the top 23 most-visited parks, with significant congestion conditions concentrated in the most popular 12 to 15 destination parks.”

“Left unmanaged,” Brengel said, “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.”

“I wish there were some sort of allowance for local folks that wasn’t Hunger Games-style.”

In both 2020 and 2021, driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the country’s most popular parks implemented pilot programs for entry reservation systems. Both Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks instituted reservation requirements for specific time windows and popular roads during the busiest months of summer and early fall, 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 through September 30. These new restrictions were intended to give visitors a more positive experience by decreasing gridlock, parking issues, and long lines for public services, but their success has been hard to measure.

“I wish there were some sort of allowance for local folks that wasn’t Hunger Games-style,” said Kelsey Connor, who lives just 30 minutes outside of Rocky Mountain. “This year, with reservations being opened a month in advance and 25 percent the day before, it’s a huge pain in the ass.”

People trying to sign up on have been complaining that, even when they log in on time to nab reservations for top sites like Glacier National Park, their desired dates sell out within three minutes. Ed Boyle, a visitor to Glacier this year, said that parking at top trailheads was still hit or miss, because some tourists are crowding into the park outside of the 6 A.M. to 5 P.M. permit window. He also noted that the 8 A.M. Mountain Time start for ticket sales made it trickier for out-of-state visitors to purchase a pass. “If they released tickets at times more spread out during the day, it would allow folks in different time zones a decent crack at it,” said Boyle.

At Yosemite, reviews have been more positive. When Ray Wrabley had to cancel his family’s planned trip to Canada last summer, he likened the new reservation system to the familiar slog of snagging coveted concert tickets. “It was relatively easy—and something we were used to—but had we not known we needed to get reservations that early, we would have had a much harder time getting into Yosemite,” he said. Once inside the park in July, he noted that the permitted entry system made the park experience more pleasant. “We were able to get around without the kinds of crowds we had encountered in other national parks.”

“One additional solution is to provide additional opportunities for people to enjoy these extraordinary places in our country.”

Many of the country’s most iconic parks are already seeing the negative impacts of high visitation on fragile ecosystems, which is an important signal that visitor management needs to be adjusted, and soon. In Rocky Mountain, concern has been raised about mounting pressure on high-alpine tundra off of Trail Ridge Road, the result of overcrowding. The park’s elk and moose populations are also being pushed from their natural habitat corridors as an increase in hikers expands trail usage. In addition, both Arches and Canyonlands have seen “multiple, high-profile cases of vandalism of cultural sites, particularly defacement of Indigenous rock imagery,” Brengel said.

The recent National Parks Subcommittee hearing raised a variety of possible solutions for grappling with current and future crowding. While Reynolds focused on educating the public and encouraging advance trip planning through park programs like #PlanLikeARanger, Brengel had a broader list of improvements she’d like to see happen. In her testimony, she pointed to 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.”

Though Senator Angus King, chair of the Parks Subcommittee, admitted at the onset of the July hearing that “there is no one single solution that will fit all the situations in our parks,” he did give a hint at the end of the meeting to the possibility that the addition of more parks might ultimately be the answer.

“I want to refer to a line in Mr. Gartland’s testimony, which jumped out at me,” said King of a statement by Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish (Montana) Chamber of Commerce. “‘The law of supply and demand doesn’t apply here. The demand is here, but we can’t just go out and build more Glacier parks. Perhaps we need to bear that in mind as this committee and subcommittee considers new proposals for parks across the country… one additional solution is to provide additional opportunities for people to enjoy these extraordinary places in our country.’”

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