We need to invest more money in our national parks
In the summer of 2020, crowded national parks were part of the new normal. Safe outdoor spaces provided a respite from the pandemic, and ever since, destinations from Angels Landing to Arches have seen a huge and growing number of new visitors, resulting in extremely crowded national parks.
Data released by the National Park Service (NPS) shows that Zion National Park, the most popular park in Utah, received more than 5 million visitors in 2021. The five national parks across the state saw 16 million. Some crowded national parks now require reservations for popular hikes, communities located near parks have seen increased traffic and congestion, and there has been a perceptible rise in tourist-related grumbling.
But the national parks weren’t set aside from development for only a few of us to enjoy. They belong to everyone, and more people enjoying them is desirable. At a time when America is politically divided, enjoying the beauty and splendor of nature makes us happier, healthier, and a whole lot less angry. The question we need to ask isn’t how to ration the parks—it’s how the parks can better accommodate increased demand.
According to the NPS report, parks are a massive economic resource for Utah that generate more than $2 billion in economic activity. They also provide tens of thousands of jobs inside the parks and surrounding towns where guiding, service industry work, and hundreds of hotels depend on the parks for clients. Furthermore, wilderness provides an intangible benefit to the millions of people who access the national parks annually.
It’s easy as a resident of a state with vast swathes of public land to dismiss the rarity and value of places that haven’t been privatized and removed from their natural state. But for residents of large urban areas and states with little to no public land, those resources offer a valuable chance to disconnect from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with nature, themselves, and each other.
How, then, can we ensure that an ever-growing number of people have access to nature without negatively impacting small park towns and parks? The park service has tried a few things. In 2021, Arches National Park was often at capacity by 8 a.m. and simply closed its gates. This summer, it tried a timed entry scheme. Rather than a first-come, first-served gambit that could thwart vacation plans when the crowded national parks set in, visitors were able to purchase a timed entry ticket in advance. These cost a little extra—$2 in addition to the usual entry fee—but at least they guaranteed entry.
Same-day slots are available as of mid-July, and the system seems to offer out-of-state tourists a much better opportunity to ensure that they can see the sights they came for. Executive editor at Backpacker Magazine and former Moab resident Adam Roy agrees that for some sites, timed entry is the most equitable way to ensure access. “Certain places are just so iconic that they’re going to draw crowds,” Roy says. “It’s easy to blame Instagram for it, but Delicate Arch is on Utah’s license plates and welcome signs. Of course, people are going to come—it’s like Utah’s Empire State Building. Making people plan ahead to see it isn’t ideal, but it’s probably better than making people wait in line to get in or drive around for an hour to find parking.”
Of course, national parks aren’t all Utah has to offer. Those interested in natural rock arches without the crowds can find more accessible versions off the beaten path. In fact, I just booked a three-night trip that will involve a lot of arch sighting—paddling Ruby Horsethief Canyon—with just two weeks’ notice in the middle of summer. I also walked to Corona Arch (arguably more spectacular than the famous Delicate Arch) in early August and saw just three other people on the trail. If we want to get more people into parks and minimize damage, congestion, and disruption, we ought to ask what’s stopping the folks lining up outside Zion or Arches from accessing this and the thousands of other wilderness experiences that the parks have to offer.
There’s certainly an allure to “secret spots”—places with no crowds and permits that can be easily obtained. Places like Delicate Arch have become overrun by huge tour groups, making them feel like a less-than-authentic outdoor experience. I understand the need to be far from the madding crowd in the outdoors (it’s about the only way I have kept my mental health through the last two years), and I want everyone to have that same access. I find it contradictory that so many folks complaining about congestion in little towns outside the park are the same ones not sharing information about permits that would shuttle people away. As a community, we ought to do better at acknowledging the parks are special—and everyone deserves to share in the wonder we feel when we are alone there.
To do this, people in the outdoors community need to be better at sharing information, making gear more accessible, and not gatekeeping the skills and information needed to get to those wild places. I can assure my friends in the outdoor world that no matter how many 5.12 multi-pitch routes and Class 4 rapids I write about, there are still only going to be a limited number of folks who can get up or down them. Of the 297,115,406 recreation visits to crowded national parks in 2021, only 12,745,455 were overnight stays. Increasing this number could allow people to get further into the parks, off the beaten path, and away from the crowds dominating popular and easily accessible parts of the system.
Roy says we can also increase capacity by increasing visitation numbers at the less popular units, something Utah has done almost too well with its campaigns highlighting lesser-known parks like Canyonlands. However, we also need to invest in infrastructure like trails, toilets, and roads visitors can access in a standard car to meet this increased demand. “As everyone from park advocates to sitting senators have observed, it’s not necessarily that we don’t have the space in the national park system to accommodate visitors; it’s that the visitors we have are distributed very unevenly through the system,” he says.
To get people to more places, we need to expand the capacity of the parks. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Straightforward solutions can be implemented to ensure the parks remain accessible without becoming outdoor Disney World. Most parks rely almost entirely on single occupancy—or, at best, single-family—vehicles. Currently, the NPS charges a flat rate of $30 per vehicle containing 1-14 people. If visitors enter without a car, the cost is $15. Providing an incentive to car share with a sliding scale of cost based on vehicle occupancy and letting non-drivers in for free would likely result in no loss in revenue and a decrease in congestion.
Some popular parks like Zion have already embraced forms of mass transit. Each bus in Zion replaces 28 visitor cars, and in 2019, Zion shuttles transported almost 6.8 million riders, according to NPS statistics. It is admittedly hard to increase mass occupancy vehicle usage when we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Hopefully, we can look toward a future where we can all breathe the same air sometime soon.
Roy agrees. “I think we should also reframe how we think about the question,” he says. “Parks are crowded with people, yeah, but you could argue that a bigger problem in many of them is that they’re crowded with cars. Increasing shuttles, for example, and restricting how many cars are allowed in popular parks to discourage driving could decrease visitors’ environmental impact and stress levels. Given how, in many parks, the majority of visitors head to a relatively small number of popular spots, it would probably be pretty convenient.”
Part of this expansion in capacity needs to be an expansion in the budget. In 2022, the NPS received $3.5 billion. With nearly 300 million visitors last year, the NPS costs the federal government $11.67 per visitor. Given the massive and well-documented benefits of the outdoors for mental and physical health—and an increase in conditions like obesity, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety—making the parks easier to access should be a priority. States like Colorado and New York get it: both have “Outdoor RX” programs that use time outdoors to prevent and treat numerous conditions. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs has begun investigating outdoor access as part of its therapy offerings.
Accessible to all
Accessible to all
More money for the parks would allow them to provide more low-cost or free guiding services. Guides can help people get into the less-traveled parts of the park, further decreasing crowded national parks. Right now, groups like Big City Mountaineers help facilitate backcountry access, but taxpayer funding could significantly increase the number of people who could benefit from this. The park service already offers some guiding and interpretive hikes and free entrance to people with disabilities and veterans. Increasing the scope of these programs to get people further into parks and away from crowded areas could decrease the cost to consumers and make the parks more pleasant for everyone.
Part of ensuring more people can access the parks is having a broader range of people working for the park service to help them access it. This means addressing the fact that white people and men remain overrepresented in the NPS while women and people of color are underrepresented. Employing rangers who represent all Americans could help welcome all Americans to our parks.
In addition, teaching people the importance of Leave No Trace principles will allow our great-grandchildren to experience the same awe we feel when we see the sun rising over Arches or the Colorado River flowing through the red rocks that make our Four Corners area so unique. Data shows survey respondents who received education or even saw signs about Leave No Trace principles were more likely to dispose of waste responsibly in parks.
It is possible for the parks to keep admitting more people and continue being a place where we can find solace in the outdoors, but we have to invest in our parks by increasing services and employees. It will require investment in guiding, education, and potentially free or reduced admission in return for volunteer hours. But the end result is an investment—not just in Utah’s tourist economy but also in the future of our irreplaceable public lands.