National Parks Punt on Overcrowding
Statutory Requirement for Parks to Establish Carrying Capacities Widely Ignored
Washington, DC — As record-breaking visitation chokes popular national parks this summer, long-time statutory protections against overcrowding have fallen into disuse, according to an analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Very few parks have required carrying capacities to prevent the crush of humanity from damaging natural resources or the quality of visitor experience.
The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 requires “visitor carrying capacities for all areas” of each park unit. In some instances, carrying capacity may be a hard limit on the number of visitors. National Park Service (NPS) policy, however, encourages parks to take a more nuanced approach of adopting formal standards for unacceptable overcrowding, such as caps on waiting times to see a park feature, maximum number of encounters on trails or the ability to camp out of sight or sound range of neighbors, and determining indicators for excess usage such as soil compaction, exposed tree roots or vegetation loss.
However configured, almost no major national parks have carrying capacities based upon a PEER review of 59 National Parks, 19 National Preserves, two National Reserves, 18 National Recreation Areas, and 10 National Seashores in the 411-unit system. Of these 108 major units, only seven have established carrying capacities and all but one of those only cover only certain areas or facilities.
“The safeguards Congress enacted to prevent national parks from being loved to death have become dead letters,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that in a campaign called “Find Your Park” to promote its centennial, NPS is pushing to increase visitation–which in 2015 was already at an all-time high. “Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ this summer the challenge should be called ‘Find a Place to Park’.”
The PEER analysis found that of the ten most visited national parks, only Yosemite had carrying capacities for its wilderness zones. In a 1995 plan, Grand Canyon set numeric caps on visitors to specified areas but that plan lapsed and has not been replaced. In 2001, Zion adopted “preliminary carrying capacities” which it has yet to finalize. Encapsulating this posture was the reply Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk gave a reporter asking about this topic: “The words ‘carrying capacity’ will be attributed to you and not to me because they are words I don’t say.”
Nonetheless, many park planning documents admit the need to put carrying capacities in place but most all of them lack a schedule for doing so. For example, in 1999 Glacier called for adopting a “future implementation strategy…to determine levels of use” and Rocky Mountain in 2013 cited the need for a “visitor use management plan that should address capacities of several areas of the park and determine where use should be limited” but neither park did so. Perhaps typical was Mt. Rainier which in 2001 when headed by now NPS Director Jon Jarvis promised that a “visitor carrying capacity framework for the entire park would be established….” That promise has also yet to be kept.
By contrast, a few parks have detailed carrying capacities. Everglades has standards for crowding at boat launches, for road traffic and on trails. In 2014, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the second most visited place in the park system, promulgated a set of concrete user limits for identified “management zones” as does the management plan adopted that same year by Gulf Islands National Seashore.
“While not all parks are the same, the ability of a handful of parks to do thoughtful planning while most others do none suggests that it is not a priority in today’s Park Service,” added Ruch. “Contrary to the clear dictates of law and official policy, the Park Service appears to be evolving to the position that there can never be too many visitors – a position with which many visitors in long lines would disagree.”