Nothing epitomizes the natural splendor of America quite like a national park. The designation evokes images of quiet groves of towering trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, sweeping views of sun-drenched rock formations in Arches, or waves crashing against granite cliffs in Acadia (National Park).
Recently, though, national parks have become synonymous not with pastoral retreats but rather a decidedly less appealing phenomenon: crowds and more crowds.
More than 327 million people visited the public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 and after a brief, pandemic-causing respite the system is again straining to accommodate the hordes yearning for a little fresh air after more than a year spent mostly indoors. Parks across the country are setting records for visits while landmarks like Old Faithful and Utah’s Delicate Arch have been swamped by picture-snapping visitors.
Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of vehicles on the way to an already full parking lot.
Since last August, every month except one has been record-setting at Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited the park in 2019 and the total will likely reach four million this year.
Yellowstone, whose history as a national park predates the Park Service itself, registered its first month with over a million visitors in July. The park is grappling with the impact all those new guests are having on the park’s infrastructure. A million more people a year in Yellowstone mean you’re emptying 2,000 garbage cans five times a day instead of three. What is the impact of a million more people flushing toilets five times a day, do to wastewater?
So far, federal action on the matter has largely been restricted to last year’s Great American Outdoors Act which directed money to the NPS’s estimated $12 billion repair backlog as well as the President’s recently proposed budget which would increase the number of full-time Park Service employees considerably for the first time in two decades. But, the core issue remains: There are too many people concentrated in too few places.
But, how can we rebalance the scale? By adding more national parks!
After all, America has no shortage of sublime landscapes. The current assortment of national parks represents a narrow cross-section of the nation’s beauty.
The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are undeniably magnificent but so too are lesser-known landmarks. Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico whose 13.7-mile-wide crater is dotted by hot springs and streams. Joshua trees in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve are no less mesmerizing than in their namesake national park. These are just two of the dozens of wilderness areas across the country that are already managed by the Park Service yet remain practically unknown. Redesignating them as national parks could change that overnight.
There is perceived credibility in the national park designation. Elevating a national preserve or national monument to national park status does increase visitation.
Headwaters Economics, a research group based in Montana, reported on the impact of the eight national monuments redesignated as national parks over the past two decades. Their research found that national parks overall have much greater visitation, overnight visits, spending per visitor, an economic impact than national monuments. Visits increased by 21 percent on average in the five years following redesignation compared to the five previous years.
Those findings are borne out by the New River Gorge in West Virginia which was redesignated last December. A spokesperson for the park estimates that visits have increased by 24 percent in the months since.
In the Intermountain West, from 2000 to 2016, recreation visits to national parks increased while visits to national monuments decreased. Importantly, national parks saw a greater increase in overnight visits which has a significant economic impact on the surrounding communities.
The most substantial difference between national parks and monuments is that the latter are created by presidential decree rather than congressional action; indeed, many national parks began as monuments and were only later elevated to their now rarefied status.
For many visitors, the word “monument” is something of a misnomer. It signals that maybe there’s one thing of interest there. That leads people unfamiliar with the region to think, “Let’s plan on a two-hour stop before we go on to a big-name national park.”
There is potential for a significant increase in visitation and economic impact for surrounding communities from redesigning a national monument as a national park. National monuments like Craters of the Moon (Idaho), Canyon de Chelly (Arizona), Organ Pipe (Arizona), Cedar Breaks (Utah), Natural Bridges (Utah), Mount St. Helens (Washington), Aztec Ruins (New Mexico), and El Malpais (New Mexico) come to mind.
How many of the six million annual Grand Canyon visitors might be enticed to go to Arizona’s similarly majestic Canyon de Chelly if it were a national park rather than a national monument? How many of the hundreds of thousands of eager hikers packing into Zion every month might take a chance on Cedar Breaks instead, especially given its crimson-striped cliffs and bristlecone forests are a mere hour’s drive further into the Utah desert?
Of course, many Westerners will shudder at the notion of under-the-radar gems like Craters of the Moon and the Valles Caldera becoming the next Bryce Canyon or Badlands. Which begs the question of how to alleviate crowding at some sites without overwhelming others?
Many national parks have already reached their limits, leaving less developed public lands vulnerable. Because Grand Teton can’t accommodate everyone who wants to stay there overnight, rangers from the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest have been scrambling to respond to the campers who want to camp there instead despite the area not having a comparable visitor infrastructure. And, therein may lay the answer for another viable alternative to the overcrowded national parks. Overshadowed by the NPS, the U.S National Forests offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country.
The Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, and 122 wild and scenic rivers.
National Forests, then, represent an appealing in-between alternative: sites that many outdoors-minded travelers have never heard of that can still offer an experience every bit as memorable as a brand name park.
There’s a paradox in the national parks. They’re set aside as natural places to be protected forever; on the other hand, they’re for public enjoyment and experience. The current situation complicates both sides of that equation by compromising the Park Service’s conservation mission while also making parks less appealing places to visit. Creating more National Parks is part of the solution. If you’ve got a demand problem, you can solve it by increasing supply. That’s Economics 101.
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
—Wallace Stegner, 1983