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Overwhelmed Public Lands

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Recent years have seen a rapid increase in the use of our public lands, to the point that the most popular, especially the national parks, are totally overwhelmed. It’s becoming a significant problem. I’m certainly one of them–in fact, if you see some white guy at Acadia National Park this weekend, it might be me (excited, it’s my first time!). Of course, almost everyone in the national parks is white because America. Our public lands are based on histories of racism as much as anything else. But in any case, people want to be there. What to do about it is a real quandary:

In the end, however, the respite was short-lived. By midsummer, even as temperatures climbed to unbearable heights, forests burned and the air filled with smoke, people began traveling again, mostly by car and generally closer to home. They inundated the public lands, from the big, heavily developed national parks like Zion and the humbler state parks, to dispersed campsites on Bureau of Land Management and national forest lands.

It was more than just a return of the same old crowds. Millions of outdoor-recreation rookies apparently turned to the public lands to escape the pandemic. Nearly every national park in the West had relatively few visitors from March until July. But then numbers surged to record-breaking levels during the latter part of 2020 — a trend that was reflected and then some on the surrounding non-park lands.

If nature did manage a little healing in the spring, by summer the wounds were ripped open again in the form of overuse, torn-up alpine tundra, litter, noise, car exhaust and crowd-stressed wildlife. Human waste and toilet paper were scattered alongside photogenic lakes and streams. Search and rescue teams, most of which are volunteer, were overwhelmed, with some being called out three or more times a week. Meanwhile, the agencies charged with overseeing the lands have long been underfunded and understaffed — a situation exacerbated by the global pandemic. They were simply unable to get a handle on all of the use — and increased abuse.

There is no end in sight: The first five months of 2021 have been the busiest ever for much of the West’s public lands. And tourist season has only just begun.   

As the environmental historian Mike Childers states, one thing that has to happen is that reservations must be required to enter the national parks:

This exponential growth is generating pollution and putting wildlife at risk to a degree that threatens the future of the park system. And with Americans eager to get back out into the world, the summer of 2021 promises to be one of the busiest domestic travel seasons in recent history. Reservations and other policies to manage visitor numbers could become features at many of the most popular parks.

Today the national park system has grown to comprise 63 national parks, with ever more visitors, plus 360 sites with other designations, such as national seashores, monuments and battlefields. Some of these other sites, such as Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts and Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, also attract millions of visitors yearly.

In 2019, a record-setting 327 million people visited the national parks, with the heaviest impacts on parks located near cities, like Rocky Mountain National Park outside Denver. This crowding spotlighted problems that park officials had been raising concerns about for years: The parks are underfunded, overrun, overbuilt and threatened by air and water pollution in violation of the laws and executive orders that protected them.

Park horror stories have grown common in recent years. They include miles-long traffic jams in Yellowstone, three-hour waits to enter Yosemite, trails littered with trash and confrontations between tourists and wildlife.

This is bad for the environment, bad for the wildlife, and bad for the people. Ideally, we’d have so much public land that everyone could enjoy it without worries about restrictions. But of course most people are attracted to the same 15 places. You can go all sorts of places in America and see no one. But they don’t have geysers or arches or bison. What national parks and the public lands are generally are is managed land. Management requires a hands-on approach. And given the situation where we now find ourselves, it’s going to be necessary to manage these spots to limit the number of people.

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