Do We Love Our National Parks Too Much?

Yellowstone - Old Faihtful 1What’s the biggest threat to our national parks? Is it climate change? Is it mining, or maybe drilling? Is it Hawaiian shirt-clad tourists? If you keep up with national park news, you may have heard or read somewhere that we are “loving our national parks to death”. It’s becoming a bit of a catchphrase, but it’s an important subject to consider.

So what does mean to love our national parks to death? It’s pretty simple, really. The incredible volume of visitors entering national parks each year has a detrimental effect on the environment.

This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service. Though national parks were established before the creation of the NPS – and the parks themselves had been around millions of years before that – the National Park Service has been managing our nation’s parks for 100 years. The NPS is responsible for both encouraging visitors to enjoy the wonders that our national parks have to offer, while simultaneously protecting those parks. These responsibilities seem pretty straightforward, but it can actually get a little messy.

The number of visitors to national parks has been steadily rising. A record-breaking 305 million people visited national parks last year, and it’s projected that there will be even more visitors this year. As interest in national parks continues to grow, so does the need to limit the environmental impact of the increasing traffic.

Consider the environmental impact of hundreds of millions of annual visitors to national parks:

  • Air pollution caused by visitor vehicles
  • Trash and litter
  • Foot traffic through delicate ecosystems
  • Development to accommodate visitors (roads, parking, camping, rest room facilities, etc.)
  • Human interference with wildlife, unintentional or otherwise

Take Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in the U.S., bringing in 10.7 million visitors last year. While it’s terrific that so many people want to experience the beauty that this park has to offer, the environmental impact of nearly 11 million visitors is substantial. That’s where the idea of loving our national parks to death comes in. Keeping these public lands accessible and protected is becoming increasingly challenging.

There have been some ideas to try and help manage the high volume of visitors at national parks. Some parks are toying with the idea of reservations, and there are already lottery systems in place for some of the marquee hikes. Zion requires visitors to park at the main entrance, or outside the park, and ride a shuttle into the breathtaking 6-mile canyon. Other suggestions include phased entry to national parks, and daily caps for visitors.

Our national parks are there to be loved, but not loved to death. We must make sure that our children and grandchildren can love them as well. We can help do our part to limit our impact on national parks.

  • Follow guidelines and restrictions created by the park service. You may not see the harm in short-cutting switchbacks or taking a souvenir from the forest floor, but if hundreds of millions of people all did the same thing each year, the impact would be substantial.
  • Recycle and do not litter. Better yet, bring reusable bottles and containers to reduce the amount of waste you generate while visiting national parks.
  • Take advantage of the shuttles. They’re easier on you, you can relax and enjoy the scenery instead of dangerously rubbernecking while you drive, and it’s better for the environment.
  • Educate yourself on Leave No Trace etiquette.

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