Reopened National Parks Must Curb Overcrowding   

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For Immediate Release:  Monday, April 27, 2020
Contact:  Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028; Kirsten Stade

Reopened National Parks Must Curb Overcrowding

Long-Neglected Law Requiring “Carrying Capacities” Should be Dusted Off

Washington, DC — National parks are caught between a presidential edict to reopen and social restrictions ordered by state and local health officials.  This dilemma should force parks as they reopen to finally address chronic crippling overcrowding.  An important tool in this delicate process may be a long-ignored law mandating that all parks adopt “carrying capacities,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In a chaotic fashion over the past few weeks, the National Park Service (NPS) has shuttered an estimated 140 park units, most under pressure from state or local public health authorities to reduce risks of spreading coronavirus. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, it appears that social distancing requirements will remain in place in states containing these parks for quite some time.

At the same time, national parks have been setting visitation records in recent years.  Yet, when some of the most afflicted parks, such as Utah’s Zion, attempt to limit crowds they face local political opposition with zero support in NPS Headquarters or the Department of Interior.

This leaves unanswered the question of how national parks, which are used to attracting big crowds, can operate in a new era of social distancing.

One answer may be found in the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 that requires “visitor carrying capacities for all areas” of each park unit.  Yet more than 40 years after its enactment, a review by PEER indicates that almost no major national parks have adopted carrying capacities to prevent harmful overcrowding.  Carrying capacities are not merely a hard limit on the number of visitors but are standards for implementing social distancing, such as –

  • Maximum number of encounters on trails;
  • Caps on waiting times to see a park feature, to prevent long lines; and
The ability to camp out of sight or sound range of neighbors.

“Reopening these national parks will not be as simple as just unlocking the gates,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse.  “As many commentators have said that our national parks are being ‘loved to death,’ social distancing may prove an antidote to destructive overcrowding.”

This legal requirement that parks be managed to prevent crowds from harming park resources or detracting from visitor experience will also require new management philosophies from park superintendents who see ever higher visitation as a gauge of park success and relevance.

In addition, carrying capacities are supposed to be part of park general management plans, developed with public input and in a transparent manner.  However, the current planning for park reopening, as with many other park functions, is now being hatched behind closed doors.

“These national parks belong to all Americans and the plans governing their use should involve the public, as well,” Whitehouse, noting that carrying capacities will give park staff enforceable rules to maintain social distancing.  “With a new era of park management dawning, revisiting bedrock principles central to preserving ‘America’s best idea’ may be especially timely.”


Examine legal requirements for parks to adopt carrying capacities

Look at tensions that parks face on social distancing

See Zion’s timid plan that triggered backlash

Revisit chaotic park closures

Trace the retreat of public involvement in park planning

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