Photo: Vlad Teodor/Shutterstock

The National Parks Are Overcrowded. Here's How to Visit Them Without Being Part of the Problem.

National Parks
by Daniel Proctor Jan 14, 2017

THE SELFIE GENERATION HAS DECIDED that being outdoors is epic, but their timing could’ve been better. Over the course of the last five years, the US National Park Service’s (NPS) funding has been cut $364 million; meaning less funds, employees and infrastructure to handle the surging crowds. Visitor attendances are at an all-time high: the parks recorded 304 million visitors in 2015, an increase of 12 million visits from 2014. Our parks are being forced to do more with less. Amidst all this, overcrowding has led to increased confrontations with wildlife and unsustainable waste management.

Landfill garbage is expensive and contributing to climate change

Littering in a national park is illegal (and is downright bad form), but it’s not only loose trash that can do damage. Increased popularity of the parks has meant more trash, which means more logistical hurdles and higher costs in managing waste that ends up in landfills. The NPS dealt with over 100 million tons of garbage last year with a mixed approach of full onsite staff and contracted waste-services companies, costing millions of dollars.

Yosemite, Denali, and Grand Teton have declared the ambitious goal of eliminating close to all of their landfill trash — mainly by increasing efforts at recycling and composting. Considering landfills produce 20% of all methane contributing to global warming, smart garbage management can not only reduce financial stress on the parks but help fight climate change — a phenomenon disproportionately affecting our National Parks (the Glaciers in Glacier are projected to be gone by 2030). There are barriers, especially considering the remoteness of some parks. Denali National Park in Alaska is more than 50 miles from any recycling center, contributing to them dumping 80% of their trash in landfills.

There are small things visitors can do to reduce their garbage footprint like choosing reusable bottles over plastic bottles, but every visitor should make the effort to haul out any garbage they bring in, especially heavy items like glass. In 2016, Subaru, a company known for pioneering zero landfill practices, collaborated with the National Park Foundation (NPF) to help celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) and worked with the parks and NPCA to help reduce waste. Ultimately the NPS has taken steps to combat excess waste and its acceleration of climate change, but in the end its success will depend on visitors.

Dwindling budgets, declining infrastructure

In 2001, Congress allotted 0.12% of the total federal budget to the NPS. By 2014, that figure had declined to 0.069%. As visitor numbers surge and climate change places more strain on park assets, the NPS is working with its hands tied. Nationwide, the NPS has a backlog of maintenance projects estimated at nearly $12 billion. These include necessary work on bridges, roads, trails, campgrounds, utilities and other basic repairs. A prime example is Yosemite’s sewer lines, which have been known to spill untreated sewage into the once wild and pristine Merced River.

The lack of funds has seen the NPS become increasingly fraught for cash. Earlier last year came a shift in philanthropy policy when the parks rolled out a new plan hoping to court individual and corporate donations. It would allow Park directors to directly solicit donations from organizations or private donors, allowing corporations to name facilities they invested in. Billionaire David Rubenstein recently donated $18.5 million to restore the Lincoln Memorial and $7.5 million for the Washington monument. Subaru has donated vehicles to the Parks Service while also relying heavily on the partnership in recent marketing campaigns. Big money aside, all individuals are encouraged to donate to the parks. If donating isn’t in the cards, you can easily reach out to your congressman to let them know how you feel — here is a good place to start.

Crowds accelerate likelihood of wildlife run-ins

Because of misguided attempts at animal bonding and Instagram glory, avoidable run-ins with wildlife are the new status quo. Last year in Yellowstone, 5 people were gored by bison, with at least 2 attacked while attempting a selfie. A few months later, a father and son kidnapped a bison calf in an ill-judged rescue attempt. As a result the calf had to be euthanized. Humans are not only putting themselves in harm’s way but also putting wildlife in danger. We witnessed a fatal reminder this past summer when a backcountry ranger was mauled to death by a grizzly in Glacier National Park. Even the outwardly placid mountain goat gored and killed a man in Olympic National Park in 2010.

The NPS already has rules for engaging wildlife, mainly to keep your distance. Bison, which can run up to 30MPH, require a buffer of at least 25 yards. In Yellowstone especially it’s not uncommon for visitors to push their luck and approach as close as 5 feet, often because of the group mentality. Yellowstone spokeswoman Amy Bartlett re-iterated the importance of following the rules. “People are getting way too close, they knew they were doing something wrong but thought it was okay because other people were nearby.”

Yellowstone has been getting creative in trying to increase visitor awareness, distributing pamphlets showing humans being gored and tossed into the air by bison. Maybe people get the point, but the excitement of the moment transcends common sense. Psychology aside, any potential for harm can be avoided by following the guidelines, ubiquitous in parks — on signs, maps, and pamphlets. Much like the waste management issue, change is in the hands of the visitors.

What lies ahead

Anti-environment Republicans have assumed control of Congress, and our president-elect believes climate change is a hoax. In this new era of de-regulation and hypercapitalism, public budgets are going to be cut significantly. Desperate for money, the parks could be forced to accelerate the era of sponsorship. We’re on the fast track to Trump Lodge in Yosemite Valley with Half Dome brought to you by Mountain Dew.

If our government doesn’t care about the American spirit, we need to take it upon ourselves to visit sustainably and encourage others to do the same. Aside from being a responsible traveler, there is plenty of opportunity to reinforce the parks through pro-conservation organizations. Supporting the National Park Foundation, the official charitable partner of the National Park Service, is a great place to start. The National Resource Defense Council also does a great job of promoting environmental stewardship. So if you’re lucky enough to get into one of our National Parks, count your blessings, and remember that everything has a cost.

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