Parks Overwhelmed by Record Numbers of Visitors

Already understaffed and underfunded, the agencies that manage state and national parks are struggling to keep up with the spike in demand for outdoor recreation over the past year.

July 4, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Traffic on road at Midway Geyser Basin

Yellowstone National Park / Traffic on road at Midway Geyser Basin

After a few months of respite from the tourist crowds, America's parks and public lands have seen a resurgence of visitors–and with it, the return of concerns about overcrowding, trash, and other management issues. As Jonathan Thompson writes in High Country News, tourist "numbers surged to record-breaking levels during the latter part of 2020 — a trend that was reflected and then some on the surrounding non-park lands." 

Throughout the United States, camping participation grew by 28%, or almost 8 million new campers. At Utah's state parks alone, visitation was up by 1.7 million people. The number of people who entered Yellowstone during Memorial Day weekend saw a 50% jump between 2019 and 2021. "Meanwhile, the agencies charged with overseeing the lands have long been underfunded and understaffed — a situation exacerbated by the global pandemic." To stem the overwhelming numbers of out-of-state visitors, Oregon has raised camping fees for non-residents.

"If nature did manage a little healing in the spring, by summer the wounds were ripped open again in the form of overuse, torn-up alpine tundra, litter, noise, car exhaust and crowd-stressed wildlife," says Thompson. And thanks to the surge in travelers who are new to the outdoors, "[s]earch and rescue teams, most of which are volunteer, were overwhelmed." 

As the summer of 2021 wears on, "[t]here is no end in sight: The first five months of 2021 have been the busiest ever for much of the West’s public lands. And tourist season has only just begun."

Friday, June 18, 2021 in High Country News

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