National Park Chooses Carrying Capacity over Crowding

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Thursday, June 8, 2023
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028


National Park Chooses Carrying Capacity over Crowding

Mt. Rainier Openly Considers When Limits Needed to Save Park Resources


Washington, DC — As several national parks brace for inundation by record-breaking crowds this summer, one park is taking steps to prevent paralyzing visitation in the first place, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In so doing, Mount Rainier is dusting off a 45-year old statutory mandate that all national parks establish carrying capacities.

As a major recreational outlet for the Seattle metro area, Mount Rainier National Park sees approximately 1.7 million visitors during peak season, with visitation projected to continue rising in the coming years. Its Draft Environmental Assessment for managing one of its most popular destinations, the Nisqually to Paradise Corridor, declares its principal purpose is to prevent overcrowding and features a picture of a traffic jam on its cover.

Reciting the often-ignored requirements of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 that every park has a current general management plan that includes “visitor carrying capacities for all areas,” the Mount Rainier plan details overuse limits for each affected area of the park. It looks at factors such as the number of “people per viewshed at select locations along trails, encounter rates on wilderness trails, vehicles at one time at key destinations, percent of bare ground adjacent to select trails, and… meadow fragmentation.” Based on those factors, it prescribes a reservation system to prevent “congestion and facility overuse.”

This plan is now open for public comment through June 26th.

“It is refreshing to see a park plan premised on what the National Park Service itself no longer admits – parks can be loved to death,” remarked Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the NPS provides no systemwide guidance to help parks avoid overcrowding. “National parks that refuse to develop carrying capacities risk paralysis from unmanaged hyper-visitation.”

Just days before the end of the Trump administration, Margaret Everson, an unconfirmed Trump appointee who was not even an NPS employee, issued an NPS Director’s Order that rescinded the previous policy and instead declared that park planning “has transitioned from preparing traditional stand-alone general management plans to a more responsive and flexible planning framework….” The order, in essence, says that there is no national standard for the depth or rigor of park planning or establishing carrying capacity.

This Trump-era order reflected the growing disuse of park-wide General Management Plans, which the 1978 law must contain carrying capacities. A 2016 survey of major national park units by PEER found that only a shrinking minority of parks had General Management Plans created within the prior 20 years and almost none featured carrying capacities. Instead of General Management Plans, parks increasingly use “foundation documents,” which typically do not trigger National Environmental Policy Act requirements for public notice and comment.

“National Park planning has become less about resource protection and more about political protection,” added Ruch, noting legislation from now U.S. Representative and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to discourage reservation or timed entry systems. “Many national park superintendents avoid even looking at visitor capacity for fear of political pushback.”


Look at Mt, Rainier draft EA (See Appendix C for Carrying capacity detail)

Contrast NPS rejection of carrying capacity mandate

Try to decipher Trump-era Director’s Order on planning and carrying capacity

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