This story was originally published by the Guardian as part of their two-year series, This Land is Your Land, examining threats to U.S. public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is republished with permission.
ARches National Park had to close its doors more than 120 times this summer just when parking lots filled up, creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles. Yellowstone National Park reached 1 million visitors in July for the first time in its history. At Zion National Park, the wait for a hike lasted four hours at Disneyland. And with the visitors came graffiti, garbage and reckless behavior.
âIt’s no secret that this summer has been one of our busiest summers ever,â said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief spokesperson for the National Park Service. “We don’t have official figures, but preliminary visitation statistics show the top 12 to 15 national parks are having record numbers.”
The record crowds of people that have invaded public lands this summer have created new challenges for park managers. They use counterintuitive tricks like encouraging selfies in one place to prevent them in another, and they deploy algorithms and autonomous vehicles to handle the crowd of leisure enthusiasts.
They also recognize a hard truth: there just may not be enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for anyone who wants to visit them.
Perhaps there just isn’t enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for anyone who wants to visit them.
One of the biggest issues facing parks is the number of visitors who are all aiming to get the perfect shot. In popular places in Yosemite and near the Grand Canyon, some even have fallen to death in the process, prompting the National Park Service to create a guide to taking selfies safely. And in 2018, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, tourist office made an unusual request to visitors heading to Grand Teton National Park after local trails were overrun with photo tourists: stop geotagging photos.
Step into the selfie station: a humble wooden stand in front of a stunning view, ready to hold a camera for a safe and easy photo experience. They are part of an effort to capture people’s natural desire to take photos and promote lesser-known areas.
Tom Hazelton, who heads the County Conservation System in Iowa, has overseen the installation of over 100 selfie stations in his state. Hazelton says some of the stations celebrate quirky parts of history, like the first train flight west of the Mississippi, while others point people to a lake, sight, or natural center that they don’t. might not meet otherwise. Similar efforts exist in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
âThese are beautiful, sturdy cedar stations,â says Hazelton, who says this is the state’s third season using the stations, and they have just installed 15 more here in the past few months. “They get used to, require little maintenance, and are easy to build: panels cost $ 30 and lumber costs another $ 60 and go.”
Another tactic to reduce pressure on parks is to reduce the number of visitors allowed to enter in the first place. The National Park Service oversees a total of 423 protected places that include national shores, national lake shores, and national monuments, among others. Popular places like the summit of Haleakala in Maui or Muir Woods in California require slots, available at Recreation.gov. More and more public lands are turning to such systems to reduce the number of visitors to any part of a park, especially as the pandemic has downsized.
The Recreation.gov program uses algorithms to show where there might be less-crowded nearby attractions that you’re looking for in real time, says Will Healy, a member of the Booz Allen Hamilton team that built the site. The National Park Service has also launched a application this year, which directs people to other potential public lands outside of parks. “If you go to Glacier, what are some of those other opportunities in the area if you couldn’t get that reservation in Glacier National Park?” says Anzelmo-Sarles, as the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, where visitors can learn about the history of ranching.
Even so, not everyone likes scheduled entry reservations. Critics opposing the timed entry to Rocky Mountain National Park have created a petition fight the system, calling it unfair, unnecessary and undemocratic.
Going forward, the Park Service is focused on deploying predictive technologies that will allow people to anticipate crowds and plan accordingly. Anzelmo-Sarles says they take tools used in city planning and congestion planning and repurpose them for recreation and parks.
This could mean a future where a hiker scans a QR code to check in at the trailhead, returning information when the trails are most crowded. That way, the next group could be advised to wait an hour or come back another time to experience the same adventure. It could also mean that traffic is directed to less popular areas of the parks.
To reduce traffic, some fleets are experimenting with self-driving cars. The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina tested a shuttle without driver this summer, and Yellowstone is also trying a shuttle. This park is expected to run out of space for additional cars by 2023. The idea, according to Anzelmo-Sarles, is to prevent people from driving between sights in the Canyon Village area – the area around the famous Yellowstone River and Tower Waterfall – and instead get in the driverless shuttle.
Another way to maintain a sense of peace on public lands is to simply remind visitors that this is what they came for. At Muir Woods National Monument, where 500-year-old trees tower over a mossy forest in northern California, a number of signs instruct visitors to “maintain a natural calm” by speaking quietly, turning off electronics and being aware of their noise levels.
A study in 2011 have shown that signs declaring such quiet areas or days actually work: Surveys have shown visitors favorable to the practice, and sound level measurements have shown substantial decreases on the days and places the signs are displayed.
Quiet areas convey the importance of the acoustic environment as a way to experience natural places, says Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist who worked in the Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Sky division. âIt is a resource which is threatened and which could disappear. And maybe if we can appreciate it more, maybe we will be more motivated to protect it.
She adds that it’s one thing to see Yellowstone’s famous geysers, but alongside that experience, you have to hear them. âIt’s all part of this experience and it’s part of the treasure of these landscapes. So really encourage people to open their ears and appreciate it as a truly amazing resource. “
Despite the crowds, traffic and noise, the Park Service says it’s a good thing that more people are going out to explore parks and public lands. âWe want people to have great experiences and we are looking for ways to improve the opportunities for people to plan to have the best experience and stay safe,â says Anzelmo-Sarles.
This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Katharine Gammon is an award-winning freelance science journalist based in Santa Monica, California.
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