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UPDATED: PEER: National Park Service Ignoring Requirement To Establish Visitor Carrying Capacities

Old Faithful crowd, Yellowstone National Park/Patrick Cone

Most national parks have failed to set carrying capacities as required by the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, according to PEER/Patrick Cone

Editor's note: This updates with National Park Service officials declining to comment on the report.

Nearly four decades have passed since Congress directed the National Park Service to establish visitor carrying capacities for the National Park System, yet few parks have done so, according to a review by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Zion National Park officials, who lament the crowds that overrun the park at times, have embarked on a visitor use study that could lead to a carrying capacity, and other superintendents have commented about crowding. A Traveler survey of parks late last year pointed to some of the 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 Jeff 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 last 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 2015 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 2015 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."

PEER on Thursday said that "very few parks have required carrying capacities to prevent the crush of humanity from damaging natural resources or the quality of visitor experience." That despite a requirement in the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 that park superintendents "will identify visitor carrying capacities for managing public use. Superintendents will also identify ways to monitor for and address unacceptable impacts on park resources and visitor experiences."

Among the parks that PEER found have established some form of carrying capacity regulations are:

* Channel Islands National Park set use limits by alternative in their 2015 GMP. The preferred alternative (alternative 3) lists day use and overnight use limits for the following park areas: East Anacapa Island, Middle Anacapa Island, West Anacapa Island, East Santa Cruz Island including Scorpion Harbor and Smugglers Cove, and Santa Cruz Island’s Prisoners Harbor and Rancho del Norte.

Dry Tortugas National Park set preliminary limits, subject to testing, of 330 people per day in Garden Key and 24-36 per day in Loggerhead Key. The proposed action (alternative C) set the maximum campground capacity to 68 campers overnight on the island, which would be regulated via a reservation system.

Everglades National Park has a GMP that employs indicators and standards to address user capacity. The only standard that could be found in the GMP that limits the number of people in a park area is the number of people on a 15-mile loop road, waiting for a tram, in the parking or restroom area at Shark Valley (400-500 people).

Golden Gate National Recreation Area has a GMP which also employs indicators and standards to address user capacity. On Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate GMP sets a limit of 0-43 people per view on Michigan Ave. 90% of the time, and 0-74 people at one time on C-D St. 90% of the time. The GMP also sets limits on the encounter rate on trails to “no more than 40 encounters with other visitor groups traveling in the opposite direction, 90% of the time during park operating hours.” The number of visitors in Muir Woods National Monument is restrained by the capacity of the parking lot. In Muir Woods, no more than 18 people per view per 50-meter trail section along valley primary trails 90% of the time during park operating hours, and no more than 30 people at one time at the Pinchot Tree and Redwood Crosscut 90% of the time during park operating hours.

Saguaro National Park utilizes indicators and standards to address user capacity. Only one standard that limits the number of people in an area could be found in their 2008 GMP: “no more than 90 people in any given month for at least 11 out of the 12 months of the year” in the Madrona Pools area.

* Zion National Park in its 2001 GMP stated it would use “preliminary carrying capacities” (i.e., 80 day hikers and 70 overnight users in the Narrows from the northern park boundary down through Orderville Canyon, and 50 people in the Left Fork of North Creek (p. 36)) until a wilderness management plan and carrying capacity studies were completed. The GMP also stated that visitor use levels are somewhat regulated by the shuttle system. The GMP also set “interim carrying capacities, pending further research, for hikers and saddle stock groups in the primitive and pristine zones.” They include hiker group size limits of 12 individuals, and saddle stock group size limit of six people per group with six saddle stock.

National Park Service officials would not respond to the report, said Thomas Crosson, who this month took over as the agency's new chief of public affairs.

At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials said the Park Service needs to take a closer look at the impacts caused by the record visitation levels.

“Many popular national parks are seeing a sharp increase in visitation, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for how to handle the influx. More analysis of impacts to the parks’ resources must be done to really understand these park-specific challenges. This careful research, combined with public engagement, will be essential to help identify solutions, to ensure that visitors continue to have incredible experiences and adventures in our national parks," said Kristen Brengel, NPCA's vice president of government affairs.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said “(T)he safeguards Congress enacted to prevent national parks from being loved to death have become dead letters." He also noted that in a campaign called “Find Your Park” to promote its centennial, the Park Service is pushing to increase visitation--which in 2015 was already at an all-time high.

“Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ this summer the challenge should be called ‘Find a Place to Park’," said Mr. Ruch in a release.

In reaching its conclusion that "almost no major national parks have carrying capacities," PEER reviewed the management plans of 59 national parks, 19 national preserves, two national reserves, 18 national recreation areas, and 10 national seashores in the park system.  "Of these 108 major units, only seven have established carrying capacities and all but one of those only cover only certain areas or facilities," the group said.

The PEER analysis found that of the ten most visited national parks, only Yosemite had carrying capacities for its wilderness zones. In a 1995 plan, Grand Canyon set numeric caps on visitors to specified areas but that plan lapsed and has not been replaced. In 2001, Zion adopted “preliminary carrying capacities” which it has yet to finalize.  Encapsulating this posture was the reply Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk gave a reporter asking about this topic: “The words ‘carrying capacity’ will be attributed to you and not to me because they are words I don’t say.” 

PEER noted that among the parks that have established carrying capacities of some fashion:

* Everglades has standards for crowding at boat launches, for road traffic, and on trails.  

* In 2014, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the second-most-visited place in the park system, promulgated a set of concrete user limits for identified “management zones” as does the management plan adopted that same year by Gulf Islands National Seashore.     

“While not all parks are the same, the ability of a handful of parks to do thoughtful planning while most others do none suggests that it is not a priority in today’s Park Service,” said Mr. Ruch.  “Contrary to the clear dictates of law and official policy, the Park Service appears to be evolving to the position that there can never be too many visitors – a position with which many visitors in long lines would disagree.”


I have lived near Yellowstone for most of my life.  I see that the influx of foreigners, tho appreciate their interest, has created the overcrowding issue as of late.  Our family has had many conversations about this issue.  Most Americans would, no doubt, feel it unfair that a US citizen be turned away from their own park but carloads of say Chinese get in.  Is there an alternative?  We thought of a lottery system for NON US citizens.  The lottery system works for other systems, why not this.  It is our park and our taxes pay for the roads and upkeep.  It should be totally available to us.  

We should create many more National Parks to spread the annual visitors over a wider array of parks, thus reducing the impact on the parks with highest visitation.

Zack, it could be argued that there are plenty of units now over which the visitation can be spread...but those parks drawing the greatest visitation -- the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Grand Canyons, Blue Ridge Parkway -- will likely continue to be the great draws no matter how many units you add.

Actually entrance fees and fees for concessionaires are a major factor of the system, so it's not so much funded by tax payers any more as it is by entrance fees from those that visit whether they be citizens or not.  But I agree with your observation that there are a lot of foriegn visitors. 

Kurt, I would argue that the reason people travel primarily to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is because they don't know that Bridger-Teton, Ancient Forest, Coal Mine Canyon, and High Allegheny exist within the same regions as those parks. By establishing these sites and more as National Parks and putting out another campaign like "See America First" for our unknown natural wonders we could help reduce the crowding in the parks featured on every quarter and postcard. This plan is especially important around populated areas like the east coast of San Francisco. Not to mention we could create a modern CCC to construct lodges, roads, and trails in some of these places to spark local communities. The next argument is the maintenance backlog which we could easily overcome by raising taxes on the richest 1-5% of Americans. During the Eisenhower administration the tax on these individuals was over 90% but the 1950's is the most revered time in the last century, despite the tax rate being in the 30% range now. As a millennial, a generation now larger than the baby-boomers, we are very open to the idea of higher taxes on the wealthy as well as liberal environmental policies. Selling this idea to my generation would be extremely easy, it's just a matter of pushing for it. More Americans want to see nature than ever, so let's give them more to see and we'll go see all of it.



I'm with Kurt. Expanding the national park system isn't going to reduce overcrowding at the most popular parks. They remain the most popular for a reason--they are the icons of the system, and always will be. What is more, Industrial Tourism now depends on those parks. Welcome, Chinese visitors! Fly into Phoenix for a quick bus trip up to the South Rim of Grand Canyon, or into Las Vegas for an even quicker overflight. Surrounding Yellowstone, Bozeman and Billings, Montana, airports are popular, along with the airports at Jackson Hole and Salt Lake City. It's too quick and easy getting to the parks by car or airplane, and now the whole world wants to see those parks.

Come the next recession, it will slow down, and then the concessionaires, gateway communities, etc., will be complaining about the lack of visitors. Down a million visitors? Woe is us!

Meanwhile, I am so delighted the millennials are ready to raise taxes on the richest 1 to 5 percent of Americans. I delight in their so-called "liberal environmental policies," led by General Electric, Vestas, Google, etc. Those policies are only killing off the public lands. I would rather the millennials be open to common sense, which somehow seems to have escaped their generation, but then, it has escaped the baby-boomers, too. You can't keep "booming" and not pay a price far beyond anything higher taxes can repair. Now that the millennial generation is larger than the last generation of boomers, I wish the millennials luck on keeping anything of the American land.

Perhaps the millennials will rediscover the discipline of removing cars from the national parks, but to do that they will have to believe that the car itself is the problem--not what powers it, thanks to "liberal environmental policies." There again, the remaking of the national parks for 45 mph speeds (wink wink, really 60) does far more to explain the crush of visitors than the lack of reasonable, alternative parks. If you can now "visit" Yellowstone in a day, you will. And so will millions of others, then to tweet, with absolute conviction, that there is no place like it on Earth. Slow down? Ask for a wilderness experience? Throw your smart phone in the garbage can? Not a chance.



Supply and demand. People are demanding to get into the National Parks, but the supply of parks is too low.

Those parks are icons because we made them icons. The reason everyone knows Yellowstone and Grand Teton is because we publicized them. Almost no one visits the neighboring area Bridger because no one knows it looks like this:

Put that on a national campaign and people will go there instead. Open it to rock climbing like Yosemite and that's where people will take those cars you don't like, but of course we'd need to build a paved road to get there (not high-clearance dirt one like there is now).

As for the future recessions response, if you plan everything upon economic fear it's a good way never to make progress. "Oh no, space will becoming increasingly expensive, I guess we shouldn't land on the Moon." Stangnant thinking, fear, and lower taxes are why we're not already on Mars.

Millenials aren't focued on the environment because of companies, we're focused on it depsite of them. Companies and members of the previous generations have spoiled the earth. Logged, mined, drilled, fracked, polluted, and monetized everything you could... and it's resulted in a planet being slowly run into the ground, and heating up. Humans are also the cause of the most recent mass-extinction. We care because we're going to have to live here longer than the people who caused all this. You get to bow out and not worry about the consequences and we're unhappy with the state of the world you've given us, so creating new National Parks is a first step in reversing the mess.

And yes, there are many ways to improve the parks: institution trams like at Zion in some parks, remove the dam at Hetch Hetchy, and most importantly create new parks within a few hours drive of major cities and popular parks to disperse the visitors to the most conjexsted parks.

The private car is the problem.  So is the tour bus and massive RV.  Motorized vehicle and visitation limits need to be established in the front country and in the back country as well.  But will local gateway communities and industrial tourism in general, both directly dependent on tourist dollars, not sabotage the career of a park official who openly argues for restrictions on cars and visitation to conserve park resources and enhance the experience of a park visit?  

Once again, I'm reminded of PJ Ryan's excellent NPT article: "How Hard can it Be?"

I also refer to the discussion of the legislative mandates to give the preservation of park resources priority over visitor access and use as presented in NPT by Dr. John Lemons

At present, increases in park visitation are being affected by this year's NPS Centennial, lower gasoline prices, and successful efforts to increase awareness of national parks via the NPS "Find Your Park" campaign. Awareness of parks is also being affected by the high frequency of video and photos of present and past park visits posted on social media.  

But the present increase in visitation which has caused the 1970's discussion to resurface about the need in our national parks for vehicle and visitation carrying capacities, should increase even more in the near, if not so near future.  

This will happen when Americans start recognizing the importance of free time in their pursuit of  happiness.  I anticipate that a right to free time will eventually become an important political, economic, and social issue.  This will happen as more and more American workers become aware that their current meager paid vacation allotment pales so markedly in comparison to the annual leave earned by the average European worker.  And, as park visitation statistics show, those Europeans do take their vacations seriously!

Of course, American Baby Boomers are already enjoying the increased travel opportunities associated with retirement.  

But, how often have we read concerns about the skewed demographics of park visitors?  How often have we heard the complaint that the majority of park visitors are now noticeably old and white (or old and bald)?

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