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Record Visitation Strained Some National Parks This Year, Creating Concern Over What 2016 Might Bring

Traffic jam at Zion National Park/NPS

With record visitation at Zion National Park in 2015, will this scene be repeated frequently in 2016?/NPS

"Find Another Park."

That twist on the National Park Service's "Find Your Park" campaign leading into the agency's centennial year was voiced this year in some parks as record visitation strained staff and impacted resources and left Park Service managers wondering how high visitation might go next year and how they'll cope with it.

"It’s going to be an interesting year. I think we’re all a little bit nervous, to be quite honest," Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said. "Just speaking for our park, we’re concerned and we’re spending time this winter thinking about how we allocate our resources in terms of funding and staff.”

Back in the late 1980s, when National Park System visitation rose to a then-record 287 million, park managers were lamenting that "we're loving the parks to death." Today's visitation not only has shot above that 287 million figure by quite a bit, but visitation is setting records year after year. Some parks saw 2015 visitation climb more than 40 percent over 2014 levels. With continued publicity and marketing of the National Park Service's centennial next year, and with efforts to lure the "next generation" of park stewards and advocates into the system and to diversify the face of those visitors, visitation is only expected to grow.

And yet, Park Service staff and resources stagnate and, in some cases, decline.

A survey of parks points to some of the problems and issues:

* At Zion in Utah, the shuttle service in Zion Canyon that was supposed to end in late October had to start back up to handle early November's crowds. During the Labor Day Weekend, it took some visitors 45 minutes to enter the park at Springdale, and then another 45 minutes waiting in line to board a shuttle to Zion Canyon. "And if you parked in town or you could find a place to park in town and took the shuttle bus to come to the park, it could be 45 minutes on top of that," said Superintendent Bradybaugh.

* In Acadia National Park in Maine, cruise ships that disgorge thousands of visitors during fall stops at Bar Harbor have created problems as passengers try to get to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

* In Montana, Glacier National Park managers weren't overwhelmed so much this year by greater visitation, but rather by an early spring that saw crowds heading into the park, and damaging facilities, before the seasonal ranger force was in place for the busy summer season.

* At Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, a proposed management plan for the Moose-Wilson Road corridor to control traffic has drawn complaints from the governor.

* Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash has received written complaints from visitors irate that it can take five hours to drive the 11-mile loop through Cades Cove.

* At Arches National Park in Utah, crowds trying to get into the park during the Memorial Day Weekend were backed up to U.S. 191, prompting the Utah Highway Patrol to temporarily close the entrance.

* At Yellowstone National Park, during the height of the summer it took some visitors up to three hours to get through the entrance at West Yellowstone, and then another hour to travel 14 miles to Madison Junction. "If you speed up the entrance station, there's no place to go, as four entrance lanes go down to one lane of traffic," said Superintendent Dan Wenk. "And then there's a bison three miles down the road. What do you do? Because if it's the first bison these people have seen, everybody thinks it's the last bison they're going to see. They all stop to take a picture."

The crowding wasn't overlooked by all park visitors.

"This family doesn't even bother going any longer. The national parks are a trampled mess that seem to get worse every year," Michael Heliobastin wrote on Traveler's Facebook page after the National Park Service reported that 2015 visitation was expected to go higher than the record 293 million visitors counted last year.

Some parks are definitely feeling the crowding.

"We’re experiencing a real crunch," said Superintendent Bradybaugh, adding that several times this year crowds "overwhelmed" his staff.

"We’re working within what we have, but our budget has gone down since 2010, and our visitation has gone up double digits," he said. "From 2010-2015, during that period in total, we’ve lost 6 percent, or about $450,000, more or less. And our visitation, based on what we project, will be up over 1 million over that period of time.”

"What we're witnessing now, we have to be extra vigilant because it could get to the point where there could be noticeable resource damage to the park." -- Cassius Cash, Great Smoky Mountains National Park superintendent.

Crowds surrounding Old Faithful/NPS

What is the "carrying capacity" of Yellowstone National Park? There's not a simple answer to that question./NPS

At Yellowstone, Superintendent Wenk expressed concerns about resource impacts throughout the fall as crowds kept filling his park. The meager increases being proposed in the National Park Service budget might not be enough to meet all the needs, he said.

"We have some hope for some small increases in funding, but the question is, is our increasing funding going to be more than offset by our increase in fixed costs?" the superintendent wondered. "This is a big place. You have to pay for a lot of things like power, electricity, fuel, etc, etc. Is our increase going to allow for more boots on the ground, or is it just going to take care of fixed costs? You have pay increases. All those things have to be paid for."

So crowded were some parks that more than one superintendent used the same two words -- "carrying capacity" -- when the conversation turned to how they might end up managing crowds. 

“It’s something we’re going to try to find out," Superintendent Wenk replied when asked what Yellowstone's carrying capacity might be. “The interesting thing on carrying capacity is, is whose carrying capacity are we talking about?"

In talking to businesses in the park's gateway communities, the superintendent said no one voiced the opinion that Yellowstone was overcrowded. But, he added, visitors in 2016 might find rows of Porta Potties in some parts of the park to help the crowds find relief without trotting into the woods with TP in hand. But trying to settle on a carrying capacity for the world's oldest national park is not an easy task, said Superintendent Wenk.

“Is it a carrying capacity based on looking at the roads and the pullouts and the facilities in the park? Is it a carrying capacity that says how many people can you put in as long as you don’t have any resource degradation going on? Is it a social carrying capacity?" said the superintendent. "Is it OK to have 3,000 or 4,000 people standing around waiting for Old Faithful to go off, standing there like they’re packed into a stadium for a college or high school or professional football or basketball game? Is that OK? Is that the experience they expect? Or is it a carrying capacity that has to do with front country and backcountry trails. Is a half-hour wait to see a grizzly bear if you’re in a car the right amount of time, or is that too long. Or should you have to wait at all?

“We have a couple carrying capacities I think to deal with. One of them is social carrying capacity, and the other one is the park’s carrying capacity in terms of the ecology of the park and what we’re doing to the resource.”

At the Smokies, Superintendent Cash said at times it might look as if the park has reached its carrying capacity in terms of human visitors. 

"When you look at the amount of cars that you may see that are not in an identified parking spot, one would think that. But I can't say that definitely just yet," he said, noting that he had only been superintendent there for nine months. "Every time you think you're there, like this year, you see a number that keeps going up."

There is a need to discuss carrying capacities of the parks, said Superintendent Cash.

"This park is responsible for roughly $860 million in tourism dollars. So traffic, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder about the resources and the amount of people that are coming here," he said. "But it does get to the point where we have to start talking about this. And I’m not sure how effective the Park Service has been. There is a carrying capacity to these lands and we have to be a little bit more vigilant for the people who do come. What’s going to be your responsibility when you do come? Are you parking in the parking lot or are you on the side of the road? I think that’s going to be the next wave of education that we have to provide to people." 

At Acadia National Park, the crush of visitors has park staff working on developing a transportation plan, said John Kelly, the park's management specialist. While the plan is aimed at the entire park, it is "very focused on Cadillac (Mountain) and some of these commercial use issues. We've been raising the question about how people are reacting to parking issues and congestion. And even though we have the Island Explorer bus system, we are still seeing parking lots and traffic lanes maxed out in certain locations at certain times in the park. Our challenge is to manage those issues in a very concentrated time and place."

"We’ve searched on cruise line websites that talk about itineraries that stop in Bar Harbor, and by visiting what you can do on that stop in Bar Harbor, that port call. Almost 90 percent of shore excursions that are sold through the cruise lines for this port are marketing not only Acadia, but Cadillac Mountain very specifically. We have made an effort with some of the major cruise lines to stop doing that, to understand that there is a lot to market. We have asked them ... to diversify their shore excursions. Not give the expectation to cruise ship passengers that if you don’t see the top of Cadillac you’ve lost out." -- John Kelly, Acadia National Park

As Acadia's staff tries to manage its increasing crowds and minimize resource impacts, the competition for a piece of the park's budget only increases.

"What generally happens is that safety and protection trumps education and interpretation," said Mr. Kelly. "That’s just an obligation that we have in terms of the hierarchy of things that we need to do for visitors. We have to ensure their safety first and foremost. Interpretation probably does get slighted for that reason alone.”

How should Yellowstone officials determine carrying capacity for the park -- by the number of visitors or their impact on resources?/Deby Dixon

And then there's the ability of the parks' staff to manage that capacity. While National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis had expressed hope that he'd be able to put more "boots on the ground" in 2016 to welcome visitors coming to enjoy the parks and help the agency celebrate its 100th birthday, Congress hasn't provided the funding to fill those boots, according to the Park Service officials. To address that lack of funding, superintendents have to be increasingly strategic in where they spend their dollars. At Zion, where Superintendent Bradybaugh couldn't keep enough custodians on the job -- "We added a whole 'nother shift of custodial staff and still weren’t able to keep up with keeping the restrooms clean. For example, we had some custodians working from 9 o’clock at night and by 6 a.m., when the next shift came in, the restrooms were already trashed." -- he said he might have to divert dollars from interpretive rangers next year to hire more custodians.

Climate change also is adding to problems in some parks.

"In the spring things just came so early beyond any historical record early that we were seeing visitation in places that traditionally wouldn't have been there," Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said. "Our Two Medicine area, there was virtually no snow at the end of April, and usually it takes our crew several days of plowing to get there. In the winter time here on the west side we establish our winter camping area in Apgar in the picnic area because that’s the only place where we have a vault toilet. But we found during National Park Week and that fee-free weekend, we had so many people coming out that there wasn’t room in the picnic area. People were moving into the campground even though the gates were closed, and people were kicking in the doors on our restrooms, in which, of course, the plumbing hadn't been turned on."

While the greater crowds are generating more cash for parks that raised their entrance fees this year, that money isn't quickly available to the parks. First it goes to Washington before being returned to the park where it was collected, and when it does arrive back, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act limits how it can be spent. Typically the dollars are restricted to projects that "enhance visitor services, including repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement." 

"How can we see this visitation coming at us, and yet have these internal rules that say, 'No, no, you can't use these monies to address your critical need for the upcoming season.' It gets into how the government spends the money it collects. Can you spend that money ahead of time before you collect it because you know it's coming? There's a culture that each different park has in terms of how that seasonal workforce and seasonal visitation works, and then there's these monies. What other sort of self-imposed rules go with these monies, how we manage them to be accountable for them, to make sure we're not stretching outselves thin? I think all of that has to be negotiated and navigated this upcoming season." -- Jeff Mow, Glacier National Park superintendent.

"Can I use them for seasonal law enforcement or not? Right now I can't, but I have some indication that I might be able to use FLREA funds for that," said Yellowstone Superintendent Wenk. "I know I can use them for interpretive ranks, so I just may have to make a decision that I'm going to put all my seasonal employees instead of some of them in interpretation, or I'll put more of the maintenance empoyees on FLREA so that I can get more law enforcement out of base funds. We're going to figure out a way to do it. It just depends on what the rules are around different funding sources.

At Glacier, Superintendent Mow agreed there needs to be some clarification, or changes, on how FLREA funds can be used in parks.

"I don't think the FLREA legislaton gets into great detail about collections. It does sort of broadly, as I recall, it broadly directs how those monies are to be spent, but the legislation doesn't say this one fits, that one doesn't," he said. "Those are internal mechanisms we have, criteria, what's the visitor connection, how does it affect the resource, is it deferred maintenance?"

While Superintendent Mow is also handicapped a bit compared to his peers by the fact that his park's entrance fees don't increase until 2016, at Zion the superintendent doesn't realize a windfall of available cash because the bulk of the fee revenue he receives supports the shuttle bus system.

"Seventy percent of those dollars goes for that," said Superintendent Bradybaugh. "It's not cheap to operate the shuttle system, but it's an absolutely essential thing. We could not operate without it."

At Grand Teton, Superintendent David Vela is fortunate to have not only great volunteer help, but also a park partner in the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, which helped raise more than $17 million to pay for the restoration of the Jenny Lake area, a project scheduled to be finished in 2018.

"We’re fortunate that we have a large seasonal workforce, but we use very effectively a very popular 'wildlife brigade' of volunteers," he said. "We provide training and they handle the bear jams and the wolf jams and that provides a tremendous service. We have volunteers in the backcountry that provide support in addition to what we get in the front county at our visitor centers. But clearly, staffing is an area of interest for all of us, and we just try to leverage and maximize what we have while taking the opportunities that volunteerism and organizations provide. And we'll continue to maximize that."

One problem area in the park he identified was the Moose-Wilson Road corridor, a nearly 8-mile stretch of two-lane that meanders from park headquarters at Moose to Wilson and Teton Village just outside the park to the south. A draft management plan that aims to address "traffic volumes on a 7.7-mile stretch of road that was not designed for the types of vehicles and the impacts that those vehicles have while they come to see wildlife and scenery and nature at its best" was not well-received by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who complained that his staff wasn't adequately consulted by the Park Service before it issued the draft plan.

But as Grand Teton's 2015 visitation climbed to 4.3 million through October, an 8 percent increase, park managers were determined to figure out how best to manage the growing crowds.

“What we’re trying to do at Grand Teton, as best we can, is get ahead of it (human impact)," said Superintendent Vela. "From how do we effectively handle waste to how do we effectively utilize science, whether it’s visitor demographic studies, transportation studies, partnerships with our gateway communities and our elected officials now. It’s kind of the same issues with climate change. What types of potential mitigation options can we consider now, while realizing that that’s staring us in the face.

“I guess what I'm saying is at Grand Teton we’re being as proactive as we can while at the same time trying to understand the visitor dynamic."

After 2014's record year pushed visitation across the entire National Park System to nearly 300 million, some of the preliminary numbers being recorded in 2015 through November are eye-catching.

* Yellowstone National Park had counted 4.1 million visits, a 16.65 percent increase over 2014 and a record. 

* Zion National Park had recorded 3.5 million visits, a 15 percent increase.

* Yosemite National Park, 4 million visits, an 7.6 percent increase.

* Acadia National Park, 2.7 million visits, a 7.44 percent increase.

* Amistad National Recreation Area recorded 1.2 million visits, an 11.3 percent increase.

* Arches National Park had 1.2 million visits, a 9 percent increase.

* Badlands National Park tallied 1 million visits, a 13.7 percent increase.

* Blue Ridge Parkway counted 13.7 million visits, a 6.6 percent increase.

* Bryce Canyon National Park reported 2.1 million visits, a 15.9 percent increase.

* Canaveral National Seashore recorded 1.57 million visits, a 15.8 percent increase.

* Cape Hatteras National Seashore tallied 2.3 million visits, a 5.8 percent increase.

* Colorado National Monument saw visitation reach 576,747 visits, a nearly 45 percent increase.

* Grand Teton National Park saw visitation reach 3 million visits, an 12.12 percent rise.

* Great Smoky Mountains National Park counted 10.1 million, a 5.85 percent increase.

* Independence Hall National Historical Park counted 4.08 million visits, a 17.7 percent increase.

* Joshua Tree National Park reached 1.8 million visits, a 29.6 percent increase.

* Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore saw 735,628 visits, a 41.5 percent increase.

* Rocky Mountain National Park counted 4 million visits, a 21 percent increase.

While not all of the 409 units of the National Park System reported significant increases in visitation this year, and some showed steep drops, through November overall visitation to the system stood at 292.6 million, a 4.92 percent increase over 2014.

With visitation numbers only expected to continue to rise, and no significant budget infusion to hire additional staff, the Park Service likely will have a very tough challenge to cope with during its centennial year.

"We want to give people that experience that Zion has always been so noted for, but I'm not sure how we're goig to accomplish that part of it right off the bat," said Superintendent Bradybaugh.

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As someone who visits GSMNP several times a year I can assure you most times the 'crowds' in Cades Cove are manageble.  It's the fact that the park does not manage individuals that stop and block the road to watch bears.  I trully believe the park is doing this intentionally to force the situation to a head.  Keeping several rangers patrolling the loop continuously on bikes would be a simple fix for many of the problems.  Now, durring peak periods there always have been traffic jams.  Also, the overwhelming majority of visitors to GSMNP never get out of their car - a highway runs through the park.  While the numbers tell one story, most of the park is backcountry and few people.  I just hope they don't try and 'fix' the problem with some sort of controlled access.

In the 80's when the NPS communicated the "Loving the Park's to Death" issue, people naturally quit coming, and visitation went down.

This is not a good message for the Centennial celebration or smaller parks who have plenty of capacity for more visitors.

A thoughtful op-ed from today's Salt Lake tribune:

It contains, among others, this insightful comment; "As more people discover the parks, our leaders seem more interested in turning them into cash cows than actually investing in needed infrastructure and staff to preserve places being loved to death."

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