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Capacity crowds in national parks: Is it time for restricted access?

After a record-breaking 75.3 million visitors in 2015, the National Park Service is looking at ways to manage the crowds at its most popular locations.

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    Visitors line the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona in August 2015. The Grand Canyon and other big national parks are seeing more visitors than usual this year, partly driven by good weather, cheap gas and marketing campaigns.
    (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)
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In March of 1872, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in what was then the territories of Montana and Wyoming under the Department of the Interior, as a “public pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”; it was the first of its kind. By August 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act which created the National Park Service as a new federal bureau, there were 35 parks and monuments managed by the national government. 

In 2015, more than 300 million people visited all U.S. national park sites  — which include lakeshores, seashores, monuments, etc. as well as the national parks themselves — an incredible 14-million-person increase from 2014. In just the 58 national parks that reported visitation numbers from 2015, there was a record-breaking 75.3 million recreational visits.

As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate 100 years in existence, the parks are looking at another record year of visitors and are finding new ways to cope with - or limit - the flow. 

Some parks are now using the "surge pricing" familiar to Uber users: charging higher entrance fees during peak days. 

Jeff Olson, a National Parks Service spokesman suggests that the recent increase in visitors is directly linked to national gas prices. “When the price of gas goes up, visitation stutters. Then visitors get used to the price of gas, and visitation returns,” he said, quoted by Andrew Flowers in a recent article on national park popularity for the website fivethirtyeight.com.

Whatever the cause may be, the dramatic increase in visitors has led to overcrowding at many of America’s most popular scenic destinations.

Aly Baltrus, a spokeswoman with Zion National Park said on the subject, ”Memorial Day really kicks off our summer season. Last year, we had 71,000 people coming to Zion on the weekend.”

Approaching this Memorial Day weekend, enormous crowds headed for Utah’s national parks have created massive traffic issues; issues that last year created problems for park officials.

"It has become a dangerous situation for folks,” said Kevin Kitchen, a Utah Department of Transportation spokesman.

This year, managers at Arches and Zion national parks worked to implement systems to mitigate traffic flows and decrease congestion for those entering and moving about the parks.

Even beyond traffic and congestion issues, the substantial increase in visitors creates other safety and logistical concerns. With 4.1 million people visiting Yellowstone in 2015 alone, up 580,000 people from the year before, “there weren't enough bathrooms or parking spaces. Trash cans overflowed,” reported Amy Beth Hanson for the Associated Press.

Then there’s the impact to the park itself. Yellowstone rangers issued 52,036 "tickets" – resource warnings for behavior threatening to the park’s natural system; behavior such as “threatening thermal features, approaching wildlife too closely, hiking in restricted areas and ‘taking bathroom breaks outside of the restroom,’” reported the AP.

Abroad, similar behavior led to destruction of the natural resources and the indefinite closing of an island in the Andaman Sea, part of a Thai national park and a popular destination for tourists.

This year, Yellowstone hired extra workers, built new bathrooms and added trash cans to specific locations — all important additions as the park has already seen a 60 percent increase in the first few weeks of the 2016 season.

As visitation trends continue to increase, national parks are working to find other solutions to further protect both visitors to the parks and the locations themselves from use-related impact.

While our national parks were initially established for the benefit of the people, human-related damage to their natural splendor decreases their overall impact.

In reference to a proposed decision to limit the number of cars that can access the Moose-Wilson Corridor — a 7.1 mile stretch through the Grand Tetons, park spokeswoman Denise Germann established that what they are “trying to create and manage is the experience that you come to the Moose-Wilson to enjoy, and protect the resources of that corridor.”

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