Get Out There

National Parks Struggle to Balance Fun and Conservation

We write a lot about our love for the national parks. We believe that getting out into America’s gorgeous parks should be a part of everyone’s lives. In recent years more and more people have started visiting. When the pandemic shut down so many fun places, people headed outdoors to socialize. That was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that more people were visiting and exploring our nation’s gorgeous public lands. On the other, the parks weren’t ready for the influx of visitors. The entire National Park Service (NPS) only has about 20,000 employees nationwide. Outside of that, they rely on volunteers. The current budget for the parks is less than 0.05 percent of the national budget. They do their best, but they struggled with almost 300 million visitors last year. The Great American Outdoors Act, signed by Pres. Trump, gave the parks a much-needed injection of cash. But there is a backlog of work that needs to be done and the parks take more and more wear and tear every day.

So, it’s unsurprising to see new rules cropping up around the parks in the face of more visitors. It can be challenging to balance the parks’ conservation efforts and people’s ability to enjoy them. For instance, because of wildfire risks, the NPS will not be allowing fireworks on the Fourth of July over Mount Rushmore.

It’s disappointing anytime the National Park Service has to restrict access to the parks,” said Robert Manning, an expert in parks and outdoor recreation at the Univ. of Vermont. “But unfortunately, it seems to be needed more and more today.”

While you used to be able to take impromptu trips to the park. You now need to book in advance, sometimes entering lotteries for campgrounds and getting tickets for timed entries because they are so packed. Cars are causing pollution and congestion. And we have written a lot about people misbehaving and vandalizing the parks.

The national parks are supposed to be preserved and protected, but the legislation that created the National Park Service also says that the parks are supposed to be used for people’s enjoyment,” Prof. Manning said. “Balancing these two objectives has always been difficult, but it’s become much more so over the last several years.”

Some parks have banned e-bikes. They can reach higher speeds than regular bikes and can endanger walkers, hikers, people on horses and even folks on normal bikes. They are also cracking down on air tours. Flights cannot take place at dusk or dawn and must fly higher than they used to because they are too loud.

Sunrise and sunset are important times of the day for wildlife and visitor use and experience,” said the NPS in a statement. “Biologically important behaviors for many species occur during this time, such as prime foraging, mating, and communication. The hours of operation provide quiet periods of the day during which visitors can enjoy natural sounds and preserve opportunities for solitude in designated wilderness areas.”

The list of changes goes on. Favorite rock-climbing sites have been closed to protect nesting peregrine falcons. California closed its national forests last year to prevent wildfires.

All of these changes can be disappointing to visitors. Even if you respect nature and conservation efforts, it’s upsetting to be told you can’t visit or you can’t do a favorite activity when you get there. While we understand why the changes are happening, it’s frustrating. The parks need a bigger budget to help shore up their infrastructure more. For instance, Zion National Park has an excellent low-emission shuttle system that enables people to go through the park without adding more cars, congestion and pollution. If all large, popular parks had that, it could cut down on many problems with overcrowding and pollution. But that takes money the NPS simply doesn’t have. With the lack of resources right now, these restrictions may be the best option.    

Banner image: Josh Miller via Unsplash

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