Photo: irene.

Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. They’re some of America’s most famous landmarks and lately, they’ve been packed.

VISITORS ARE COMING IN record numbers, the National Park Service announced on Monday. Visits rose nearly 4% this year and June alone showed an increase in over 700,000 visitors compared to June of 2008.

Chalk it up to fee-free weekends, a handful of dates set aside this summer when entrance fees were waived. The economic downturn and lower gas prices compared to last summer have also been factors. Americans are choosing to visit parks—especially easily accessible ones near large metropolitan areas—as a cheap alternative to more pricey summer vacations. And with Ken Burns’ newest documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” set to air on September 27, interest in the parks is sure to continue to spike.

But what does all of this mean for the parks and the fragile ecosystems they protect? It seems the flock of visitors can potentially hurt the very environments the parks are intended to preserve.

The parks face numerous threats, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. “…[A]ir, noise, and water pollution, erosion, invasive species, inadequate storage facilities, insufficient funding and staffing, and inappropriate activities such as snowmobile and jet ski use—have compromised the integrity of the parks’ invaluable resources,” the NPCA website says.

“It seems the flock of visitors can potentially hurt the very environments the parks are intended to preserve.”

Visitors, especially in large numbers, mean more trash, more cars that pollute, more hikers on fragile landscapes. All this will certainly strain the already huge backlog of maintenance projects and decades of underfunding for the 391 parks in the system.

The NPCA calls the parks “long-neglected and chronically underfunded,” reporting “a $750-million annual funding shortfall, and a backlog of maintenance and preservation projects of approximately $9 billion.” What’s more, the parks have some $2.5 billion in projects ready to go such as fixing roads and sewer systems and restoring historical buildings.

Some suggest capping the number of visitors allowed in the parks. Others look to the allotment of over $900 million to the parks in the Economic Recovery Bill and the goal to restore the parks by 2016—the NPS centennial.

Still, supporters and protectors of the park system straddle a fine line. Increased visitors mean a greater awareness and appreciation of this important part of America’s heritage. But more people driving near or walking through already fragile landscapes inevitably poses problems. The parks are also an important economic tool—an NPCA study found that every $1 invested by the government returns $4 in public economic value—but might this be counterproductive to their protection?

Is it possible to both protect the National Parks and encourage visitors in large numbers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Community Connection:

Matador has lots of articles in our archives about national parks. Two of our favorites are:

Seven Best National Parks for Visiting Old Growth Forests

Photo Essay: The Stunning Colors of Glacier National Park

Matador member and Roads Scholar JoAnna Haugen has been on a tour of America’s national parks this summer. Visit her blog to read about her journey.