national parks and public lands are facing a crisis of popularity
November 20, 2018 11:04 AM   Subscribe

 


I was almost knocked into the Grand Prismatic Spring by an overzealous selfie-taker.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:17 AM on November 20, 2018


At one point I would have had a "Darwin's Law will sort them out" attitude to this - if one person is too dumb to know that "petting a wild baby bear is a bad idea when Momma bear is hanging around", and they get attacked, their story will serve as a warning to others to think twice.

But then two years ago, when I was at Yosemite, I saw that the park service not only warned visitors with AMPLE signage that they should not climb the rocks at the base of Bridalveil falls. They even posted copies of x-rays from people who had broken their bones after slipping on the rocks. And yet even still, when I got to the base of the rocks, I saw that a trio of people had climbed halfway up the face of the cliff, and were making their way back down; I was sitting there long enough to see them when they reached the base, and was astonished to see that they'd not only climbed up there, but that one of them had attempted the climb in flip-flops.

Darwin's Law has met its match, and its match is "Sheer Numbers Who Just Don't Care."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:30 AM on November 20, 2018 [10 favorites]


There's nothing quite like having your enjoyment of a beautiful protected place interrupted by a loud gaggle of assholes playing pokemon go.
posted by peeedro at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


1) If you love nature, stay the fuck away from it. You're not good for nature.
2) Social media is an existential threat to all that is good in the world.
3) Raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, and finally begin the long-feared/never-realized war on cars to make driving to remote places prohibitively expensive.
posted by hyperbolic at 12:07 PM on November 20, 2018 [9 favorites]


Related: Sometimes it's better not to be the best.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2018


I’ve noticed how bad it’s become at the National parks in just the last few years. At Mt. Ranier I saw a line of cars 5 miles long trying to get into the park. At Rocky Mt. it was people jumping out of their cars to chase down the elk for a photo. At Zion it was over-whelming the number of people… shuttles were full and the trails were a constant line of people walking along them.

But the single most infuriating thing is the growing number of idiots swinging around the narcissi-stick (credit to Rick Steves for coining that word) in order to get the perfect shot or movie of themselves. At Arches, it was impossible to photograph anything due to all the people that have to climb all over everything (and yelling to hear their echo).

And what memories are they coming away with when every shot just has them vamping in front of the scenery? I wanted to see many of these places before they were ruined but sadly, in many parks, that’s already coming true. I wonder how we can preserve these places if a growing number of people can’t even behave while visiting them.
posted by jabo at 12:11 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


In Zion NP this September, I could tell (by smell) which parts of the Observation Point trail were favored by hikers seeking to relieve themselves. I still enjoy visiting national parks - they can be tremendously beautiful places, despite the overwhelming crowds.

I managed to find some peace and quiet outside of Zion, at the nearby Red Cliffs National Monument. (The nearby Kanarra Falls was "discovered," however) I'll admit that I once believed national parks were places of solitary wonder, but that illusion was broken upon my first visit to one in the mid 2000s. I know what I'm in for when I get in line to enter a national park, and there are plenty of less crowded places to hike if what I'm seeking is solitude.
posted by seiryuu at 12:18 PM on November 20, 2018


I fear that entry fees will just make things worse rather than better. $10 entry fees aren't going to stop someone from coming to a place they had to drive eight hours to get to, but a $10 entry fee will make them feel entitled to shit (quite literally in the case of trail waste) all over it under the assumption that the entry fee includes shit shoveling services.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:20 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Man, I lucked out on my very rare car-supported trip to Olympic National Park. I have been informed that our side trip away from the less popular to the more popular was relatively empty, and it was still too many people for me.

When I went to Yosemite as a kid in the late 1980s it was already a theme park and zoo of people being, well, people and I had a lot of questions about why we were even there. Yeah, it's magnificent and unparalleled, really, but so is seeing Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine or hiking Mt. Lassen.

I have complicated feelings and experiences about this, and I don't think that "If you love nature, stay away from it" is the answer because it denies the fact that we all live in nature, all the time, whether we're in the city or not.

Thinking this way places "nature" in a box removed from our daily consequences. I think it would be a lot better to always remember your daily impact no matter where you are and learn to always tread lightly and leave no trace.

Yeah, the cynic in me has a hard time even typing that. People are generally horrible. I want a trash picker so I can decrap the couple of miles of road near my current home just for my own aesthetic preferences on my walk.
posted by loquacious at 12:28 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


I did find that the crowds at Yosemite were only oppressively bad in the big sexy "landmarky" areas (read: most of the Yosemite Valley). But one day I drove west from the valley on the Tioga Pass road, towards Olmstead Point and Tenaya Lake. Those sites were more private and sparsely-peopled. It may be self-selecting, too, since the kind of people who'd appreciate the lesser-known, non-postcard parts of the park probably wouldn't be littering and crapping all over it anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


The story notes that many parks are moving toward a reservation system, which seems to me to be the best of many not-ideal options. Better than jacking entry fees, at least, and making these places less accessible to the 99 percent.

We camped at Rocky Mountain NP this summer with the kids. RoMo does it better than many parks, with a central parking area at Glacier Basin (iirc) and shuttles that take you out to the popular trailheads, like Bear Lake. We hiked back from there to Emerald Lake, and even though we were among the first buses there, it was pretty much a 500-person chain gang hiking out to the lake.

At one of the nighttime ranger talks, the ranger basically split up the group and crowdsourced for ideas to solve the overcrowding problem. She put reservations into the discussion, and I wondered if maybe they're trying to get that into everyone's subconscious. One idea that someone brought up: the parks partnering with local businesses for monetary (and logistical) support, which makes sense -- the Estes Park businesses (as noted in the story) essentially make their living off of the park visitors.

Another solution, as some are saying, is to just do a little homework. One day we drove out of the park about 45 minutes to a state recreation area and hiked up into the mountains. Even though the lot was full, maybe 25 cars, we didn't see anyone else on the way up, and just a handful on the way back. It was absolutely gorgeous and no, I'm not giving out the name of the place. :)
posted by martin q blank at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


1) If you love nature, stay the fuck away from it. You're not good for nature.

No, just enjoy some of the vast amount of nature that isn't a designated national park or otherwise overused.
posted by edeezy at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


I know I'm a grumpy old crank, but they should limit the number of visitors to some much lower level and close the parks completely to private cars. Offer clean, quiet, hop-on-hop-off (or wheelchair-on-wheelchair-off) bus tours instead of letting people drive in, or let people ride human-powered bicycles in (no electric stuff) or rent them at certain stops in the park. Maybe take the bus in and ride a rental bike out, or vice versa, depending on which way was easiest or most fun. The roads would be pretty safe and pleasant for bicycles without all those private cars on them.

They could keep a few small parts of parks open and cheap all the time to let selfie people get their Facebook pictures, like letting the Mona Lisa people forget about the rest of the Louvre and crowd up to the Mona Lisa just so they can say they saw the Mona Lisa. Your friends don't have to know the park has installed steel reinforcement and a safety net under Selfie Point to catch people falling off that dangerous-looking rock.
posted by pracowity at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


I was in RMNP this summer, spent most of it on the almost totally deserted west side of park, just me and a whole bunch of elk. Hiked over the divide to the east side at sunrise one day, and had the high lakes all to myself - to skinny dip in and run around and yell and do whatever I wanted. I went further down, into the great hordes of ill prepared tourists. The closer I got to the trail heads on the east side, the more it looked like a death march. People hiking in jeans and flip flops with only a small bottle of water were collapsed on the side of the trail. Screaming children. Vicious looking sun burns. Dangerously wielded selfie sticks. It was a scene straight out of fear and loathing. I jumped in a few more lakes and hauled ass back to the west side.
posted by youthenrage at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


It's a double edged sword. You want people to know about, support, and enjoy public lands, and at the same time you don't want the lands abused. Looking at the monument downsizing (hopefully the courts reject it) there were over 2 million public comments opposing the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. I'm new to exploring, having taken up backpacking only 4 years ago, but it's easy to see that the crowds at some of the parks simply aren't sustainable. The simple fact is that these places are well known now, and you can't put that toothpaste back into the tube. It's not going to be an overnight fix. People are going to somehow learn how to respect the land. Reservation systems are going to become necessary. Limits will have to be placed on crowds. And these things aren't going to be popular. I've seen so many people posting their planned trip itineraries, which typically consist of hitting up as many parks as possible in as short an amount of time as possible. When you have reservation requirements, these trips are going to be harder to plan. Just drove from North Rim to Zion and you can't get in? Welp, them's the breaks.

On another note, I want to see a public policy platform that includes a huge infusion for the parks. Clear the maintenance backlog, hire more rangers, put LNT education front and center. And codify the existing monuments into law. Our parks and monuments and forests are our nation's crown jewels, and they should be protected.
posted by azpenguin at 1:16 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Ease of access has created a vicious cycle, increasing the number of visitors and the consequently demand for easier access. Thus we trade rustic trails for paved overlooks. Bill Bryson wrote something about how the US Forestry Service's chief job is to build roads, not protect forest. Unfortunately, I think the same has become true of the US Park Service. It is a bit of conflict of interest that, to justify their existence, they must keep the number of visitors high and must also outcompete other parks for visitor dollars. This means more roads, more paved hikes, more visitor centers, more plumbing in remote areas.

I agree with Edward Abbey:

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything—but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.” ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

If only it were that easy.
posted by tempestuoso at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2018 [8 favorites]


So, it's the same cause as every other problem? There are too many people, and we're still breeding at an exponential rate.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:31 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


We had a pretty decent time in Yellowstone this past year, but I don't want to say exactly when we went for fear that everyone on the goddamned planet will suddenly decide that specific week is when it is Not Busy and descend like a swarm of locusts to destroy it.

Also, don't approach the wildlife.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:38 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


I will say a positive thing here. Go camping with the USFS. Their campsites are a clearing, fire pit, and table. There's a water spout and a vault toilet. Usually no more than a dozen sites in one spot, so no crowding. The trails are in the forest and you're on your own. Nothing is dumbed down or boring. <3 u so much, Forest Service.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


This was an excellent piece and went a little deeper than some more surface versions I've read, including the impact not only to the Big Popular Parks, but also surrounding areas, nearby towns, instantly popular Instagram spaces, etc. And those impacts are harder to deal with through the various sensible and necessary fixes folks are discussing, like reservations, higher fees, limits on cars, etc.

It did not go into one issue mentioned here which is that many of those otherwise sensible fixes (in terms of limiting damage to parks and surrounding areas) could have the unintended impact of discouraging the less affluent, communities of color, and other groups who historically have not felt welcome in national parks. The NPS has been really working on this for a bit now and I would hate to see that progress stalled because of the more general overcrowding issue.

I do think one answer, not currently feasible, is to just have a hell of a lot more parks. Properly funded.
posted by feckless at 1:47 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


Or ride horses, ... mules, wild pigs ...

Adding millions of animals and their associated management issues to the mix doesn't seem like a great approach.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:47 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


As far as overcrowding goes, I wonder how much this could be helped by the US allowing a more humane amount of annual leave for workers? Yeah, maybe there'd be more visitors to natural areas overall, but perhaps you'd also see a lot more people with the ability to spread their visits throughout the year rather than just during a few precious days at the height of summer?

Regardless, limits are going to need to be imposed at some of the more popular parks and the more fragile spots -- I just don't see any way around that. But at the same time we could encourage people not to limit themselves to those places. I realize that a lot of people don't have the luxury of driving further or the ability to venture off the most accessible paths. But, as I mentioned in the "better not to be the best" thread, there are so many places that are not on the Instagram circuit but are virtually indistinguishable from the iconic ones. If just a few more people decided to seek those out it could help spread some of the load.
posted by theory at 1:54 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


Adding millions of animals and their associated management issues to the mix doesn't seem like a great approach.

Recreational horse and pack animal use is considered a traditional means of experiencing the parks and is widely allowed in the National Park system (both frontcountry and backcountry) and the National Forest Wilderness Areas. It wouldn't be "adding" issues to Park management, they're already there and strongly supported by a very active and vocal lobby.
posted by peeedro at 2:03 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yeah, maybe there'd be more visitors to natural areas overall, but perhaps you'd also see a lot more people with the ability to spread their visits throughout the year rather than just during a few precious days at the height of summer?

Many of the popular western parks are only fully open in the summer due to snow. Snowpack hangs around keeping roads closed until June or July, and then operations wind down in October in anticipation of the coming snow. There are parks to visit year-round but if you want to drive one of the classic drives or backpack in the high country without dealing with snow or potentially dangerous stream crossings you have a short window to do so.

It wouldn't be "adding" issues to Park management, they're already there and strongly supported by a very active and vocal lobby.

Adding enough pack animals to replace cars would cause issues.
posted by edeezy at 2:25 PM on November 20, 2018


many of those otherwise sensible fixes (in terms of limiting damage to parks and surrounding areas) could have the unintended impact of discouraging the less affluent, communities of color, and other groups who historically have not felt welcome in national parks.

Switch from cars to buses and bicycles. The great equalizers.
posted by pracowity at 2:27 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


tempestuoso: "This means more roads, more paved hikes, more visitor centers, more plumbing in remote areas."

Which also increases accessibility for those who aren't uber fit hikers. People with kids; people with mobility issues; people with health issues.

feckless: "I do think one answer, not currently feasible, is to just have a hell of a lot more parks. Properly funded."

Ya. Want to reduce the demand for hikes in popular parks? Double or triple the number/acreage/facilities in other areas.

Also more than half the problems outlined could be solved by spending more money. People littering? More cans (and the associated pickup). Poeple breaking the rules? More rangers. Parking problems? More shuttles. Etc. etc.

peeedro: " It wouldn't be "adding" issues to Park management, they're already there and strongly supported by a very active and vocal lobby."

Going from the occasional horse to thousands (which is what would happen if it was the only way besides walking to get to these famous places) is going to have an impact.
posted by Mitheral at 2:34 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


I will say a positive thing here. Go camping with the USFS. Their campsites are a clearing, fire pit, and table. There's a water spout and a vault toilet. Usually no more than a dozen sites in one spot, so no crowding. The trails are in the forest and you're on your own. Nothing is dumbed down or boring. <3 u so much, Forest Service.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 1:41 PM on November 20


I'm just going to repeat this for emphasis. These are wonderful, and underused spaces.
posted by eustatic at 2:37 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


Anyone who thinks adding enough pack animals to accommodate a large number of visitors probably has not hiked the corridor trails in the Grand Canyon. A small number of mules leaves a tremendous amount of waste on those trails, and does a lot of damage if the trail gets at all wet.
posted by azpenguin at 3:26 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Haha, banning cars and replacing them with animal transport would not go well. Cars were invented specifically to clean up the streets which were overflowing with horse shit and urine. Ironic that cars were a fantastic solution to a very awful environmental problem... at the time.

And good luck raising fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, which disproportionately affects the poorer and more rural communities - who don't vote Left anyway. There is a good reason the Left is seen as the rich, elite and out of touch: people who live in high density cities with expensive public transport systems and who could, with some inconvenience, forgo cars, something which rural communities can't do.

Grand Canyon and Zion National Park were great: no cars allowed in some parts of the park, everyone had to use the nice bus system they had in place. In the absence of buses, forcing people to hike in / out is great and all, but older / impaired people need access too. In China old people get up the mountain areas being carried on litters or palanquins like royalty carried by 4 young men, which I thought was amazing, I would definitely be buying my parents a trip if we visited again.
posted by xdvesper at 3:53 PM on November 20, 2018


Ironically, I understand in that in the USA bicycles are banned from national parks and designated wilderness, being defined as "mechanized transport"? That needs to be sorted out.

My take, is that parking is one of the fundamental issues. Restrict and enforce that, and crowd management follows more easily. My partner grew up near Katoomba, a former-mining-now-tourist town that is the gateway to Blue Mountains National Park in Australia. Their house was on the end of the street next to a popular trailhead, and the street and driveways were often clogged with cars that overflowed from the full car park.

On the other hand, Katoomba is amazingly on a train line that is part of the Sydney urban network (you can use your city transport card to get there, for $2.50 on Sundays) but it's also experiencing overcrowding with people being forced to stand. In the early part of the 20th century it was common for bushwalkers to walk several kilometers from Katoomba station, through the town, down dirt roads for several more kilometers, to access walking tracks to go camping for the weekend. Few people would do that now when you can drive there (and fight over parking to cram your car into a patch of dirt at the end of the road).
posted by other barry at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2018


Bicycles are not banned in US national parks -- here are some nice ones for cycling.

"Wilderness area" is a different sort of designation. For the most part wilderness areas don't have any roads and don't allow mechanized transport of any kind, including overflight in many cases. It is true that some of the more remote portions of national parks are also designated as wilderness areas, but by definition those are the parts that don't have roads on which to cycle.
posted by theory at 4:40 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Some parks they also just designate as wilderness but carve out roads and any developed areas from the legal boundaries of the wilderness area. The University of Montana wilderness map shows it well: the purple areas are designated wildernesses managed by the National Park Service.
posted by edeezy at 6:38 PM on November 20, 2018


Which also increases accessibility for those who aren't uber fit hikers. People with kids; people with mobility issues; people with health issues.

"What about the children? What about the aged and and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents' backs need only wait a few years — if they are not run over by automobiles they will grow into a lifetime of joyous adventure, if we save the parks and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. The aged merit even less sympathy: after all, they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled. However, we'll stretch the point for those too old or too sickly to mount a bicycle and let them ride the shuttle buses.

"I can foresee the complaints […] tourists […] will complain that they can't see enough without their automobiles to bear them swiftly (traffic permitting) through the parks. But this is nonsense. A man on foot [etc. …] will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.

"[…] They will complain of hardship, these sons of pioneers. Not for long; once they rediscover the pleasures of actually operating their own limbs and senses in a varied, spontaneous, voluntary style, they will complain instead of crawling back into a car […] and that drywall box on Mossy Brook Circle." — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 67.
posted by tempestuoso at 9:26 AM on November 23, 2018


"Fuck the young, old, and people with disabilities," is pretty on-brand for Abbey it has to be said. Look up his lovely essay "Immigration and Liberal Taboos" for more insight into the man.
posted by edeezy at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2018 [1 favorite]




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