“Wallace Stegner called the national parks our “best idea,” but one wonders these days about the greatness of the National Park Service, which, since the moment of its inception, has done nothing but encourage the human tide. The 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which established the agency, tasked it with conservation of “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in parks. It also directed the NPS, however, “to provide for the enjoyment” by the public of these same protected lands. Congress perhaps didn’t imagine a time when this dual mandate would pose a contradiction, when visitation might threaten conservation.
In 2016, the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) conducted a survey to determine which parks had produced general management plans. These plans—which were mandated under the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978—were required to include both “measures for the preservation of the area’s resources” and “implementation commitments for visitor carrying capacities.” PEER surveyed fifty-nine national parks, nineteen national preserves, eighteen national recreation areas, two national reserves, and ten national seashores—a total of one hundred and eight sites—and found that only fifty-one had produced the required plans. Today, of those fifty-one units, none have set limits on visitation, as the 1978 law required. Of the ten most visited national parks, seven—including Grand Canyon and Yellowstone—have no management plan at all. Lawmakers have never bothered to hold the agency to account. Commenting on PEER’s report, Jeff Ruch, then the group’s executive director, noted that the 2016 Find Your Park campaign, designed to promote the NPS’s centennial and increase visitation, came on the heels of the news that more than fifty national parks had broken their visitor records the previous year. “Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ ” Ruch quipped, “the challenge should be called ‘Find a Place to Park.’ ””