The Environmental Impacts of Overcrowding in U.S. National Parks

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National parks are intended to be peaceful, quiet, and contemplative places to visit. In recent times, however, it is nearly impossible to escape from the hustle and bustle of the hectic city life by visiting some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. Popular national parks like Zion, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smokey Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Acadia reveal an overwhelming increase in visitors year after year. Overcrowding raises numerous widespread concerns that are worth addressing, particularly issues on park ecology, human noise pollution, traffic and air pollution, and the quality of visitor experience. Ultimately, enforcing limitations on the number of people allowed at national parks protects both visitors and the environment.

One of the leading challenges facing U.S. national parks is overcrowding. According to the national park visitor statistics, a record of 305 million people visited park sites in 2015. In particular, Grand Canyon reported over 5 million visitors in 2015. Similarly, Yellowstone estimated over 4 million visitors in 2016. These staggering records demonstrate how natural parks are inundated with humanity. As a result, we start to lose the essence that these parks were created to provide – a sense of naturalness and connectivity with nature. Jim Robbins makes a valid assertion that “saving a landscape as a national park is only part of the preservation battle – saving the spirit of these places is also essential” (Robbins, 2016). Even though conserving the physical environment is half the battle, it is vital that we preserve the core spirit of these significant places too. In other words, as we become more aware of the importance of conserving the natural world, we are better able to develop an ecological sensibility, which will help us promote action towards a sustainable path.

The overwhelming presence of visitors has a sizable impact on park ecology. One of the well-known recreational activities in Zion Park is the premier hike up the Virgin River Narrows. Now “hundreds of people a day splash and wade their way up the riverbed into the half-light of the canyon” (Robbins, 2017). Robbins exemplifies how human trampling on vegetation, soil, aquatic insects, and fish habitats causes environmental degradation. Comparably, in Yellowstone Park, visitor propriety and human-related damage threatens natural systems. For instance, a rising number of visitors are displacing wildlife, approaching wildlife too closely, taking restroom breaks outside of assigned locations, driving off established roads, straying off trails and boardwalks, hiking in restricted areas, tossing things into hot springs, or damaging fragile plant life and natural areas. As a consequence, ecological problems can lead to a loss of biodiversity as well as the destruction of natural resources.

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Human noise pollution is pervasive in many parks, wildlife, and protected areas. In reference to conservation biologist Rachael Buxton, “species in nature reserves are experiencing increased pressure from human encroachment in many forms. One type of pressure that is rarely discussed but perennial is human-produced noise” (Buxton, 2017). In this statement, Buxton explains that anthropogenic noise has a harmful effect on parks, wildlife, and protected areas across the U.S. According to a recent study on the environmental effects of human-produced noise, researchers found “doubled background sound levels in 63% of U.S. protected area units and caused a 10-fold or greater increase in 21%, surpassing levels known to interfere with human visitor experience and disrupt wildlife behavior” (Buxton, 2017). Buxton denotes how natural sound is fundamental to the functioning of organisms and their environment. For example, animals use sound for a variety of functions, such as finding food, selecting mates, and escaping predators. Hence, not being able to detect these sounds poses severe consequences for the survival of many species. Overall, these findings reveal that noise exposure is a chronic threat to ecological systems, jeopardizing the biodiversity resources in protected areas.

In addition to the effects of noise pollution on wildlife habitats, the recurrent blare of human activity affects human health and the tranquility of natural parks. For instance, Buxton highlights how sound is equally essential to human health and restoration. That is, being immersed in the grandeur of natural settings not only enhances our physical and psychological well-being like improved memory retention and mood, but it also helps restore a deeper sense of connection to wild nature. Natural sound is often overlooked by the general public, but people are beginning to realize just how valuable it is. Buxton suggests that the time you go out for a stroll in nature, pay specific attention to the sounds you hear – wind rustling through the trees, birds chirping, the flow of a stream, etc. – these are just as remarkable as visual scenery and are worthy of our protection. Therefore, if we value the subtle sounds of nature, then it is important to protect our acoustic resources.

Moreover, overcrowded parks exhibit a progressive decline in the quality of visitor experience. Zion National Park, located in southwestern Utah, was one of the first parks to address the issue of overcrowding by implementing a mandatory shuttle system in efforts to mitigate traffic congestion, air pollution, and better manage large crowds. “But it is getting stretched to its limit” says NPR’s Kirk Siegler (Siegler, 2016). At present, Zion is jam-packed with tens of thousands of tourists daily and the season remains constant yearlong in comparison to eight or nine months of visitations in the past. To illustrate, “wild desert waterfalls at the end of a three- or four-mile trail feel less like a red rock cathedral and more like a crowded beach. Lines of vehicles to get a first-come, first-served camping spot start forming at 4:30 or 5 a.m., and many come away empty-handed” (Robbins, 2017). Robbins points out how parks are becoming more and more like an overcrowded beach or amusement park rather than a serene place to visit. Gridlock and long lines to overflowing trash bins now shape the overall experiences of park visitors. Aside from this, swarms of hikers jostling each other on eroded trails also contribute to diminishing people’s experience of nature. For this reason, national parks should take into consideration an efficient management plan to tackle the issue of capacity so as to preserve irreplaceable resources, and ensure that visitors have a safe and natural experience.

On the one hand, some may point out that restricting park access alienates people. There is also a widely held perception that national parks belong to the American people, and thus parks should be made accessible to everyone. On the other hand, it is crucial to take into account the impacts of unrestricted access. Although it is the Park Service’s mission to keep parks and public parklands open and accessible to everyone, which is considered a good thing because people are experiencing the great outdoors and spending time in nature. However, doing so consequently strains infrastructure. For example, the National Park Service reports a $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. “Search and rescue teams are understaffed, and the number of human-wildlife conflicts is on the rise” (Siegler, 2016). Besides problems on maintenance, understaffing issues, and conflict between people and animals, the safety of visitors is emphasized as well. Recreation ecologist Jeffrey Marion notes that many parks are “designed to withstand and mitigate the impacts of large numbers of people, but at a certain point the crowds can no longer be managed” (Robbins, 2017). The rise of attendance has become increasingly apparent, and as more people flock to America’s most visited parks, the more difficult it will be to oversee the massive crowds. In view of these concerns, officials should consider placing strategic limitations on the use of national parks and public parklands in order to preserve the parks, protect wildlife, and keep visitors safe.

With the growing number of visitors in U.S. national parks each year, overcrowding will only worsen overtime if limits are not reasonably placed to alleviate the impacts of visitation. For this reason, placing strategic limitations on the number of visitors admitted into national parks is beneficial to both the people and the environment.

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