Policy Update May 25, 2021

Position on the impacts of COVID-19 and visitation to the National Park System

NPCA shared the following position with Senators on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee ahead of a hearing scheduled for May 26th, 2021. 

During the 2016 centennial celebration of the National Park System, we witnessed the admiration Americans have for their national parks - from the spectacular views of Acadia’s coast and the jagged peaks of the Tetons to the stories of our cultural heritage including the indigenous history preserved at Mesa Verde, the suffragettes at Belmont-Paul and the tragedies at Manzanar.

Over the last year, the importance of the National Park System has never been clearer. Our nation has come to a new appreciation of what our outdoor environments can do for us, both mentally and physically. As the initial pandemic lockdowns lifted throughout the spring of 2020, many Americans gravitated to the outdoors, including our national parks. During this increase in visitation, the National Park Service (NPS) struggled to mitigate the risks to public health that the pandemic presented. As is often true, much of what NPS was able to accomplish was undertaken with limited staff and resources.

Early in the pandemic, many park units were entirely closed. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was difficult to obtain and the risks of spreading the virus among visitors, staff and gateway communities were unknown. Several parks, including Grand Canyon and Glacier, closed some of their entrances due to at-risk indigenous communities on their borders while other parks, like Big Bend and the Washington Monument, closed when staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Initially, the process established by DOI to adjust park operations and partially or fully close parks undermined the ability of superintendents to respond quickly and cautiously to the public health crisis. At the time, DOI required park superintendents to submit a form called a “Request for Closure of Facilities/Parks and Cancellation of Large Events” that required a detailed justification for closures and sign-off from the local public health official, NPS regional director and NPS Director. The requests were then scrutinized by the Interior Secretary and other political appointees. This often led to unacceptable delays in decision-making and increased concerns for the health of park staff, visitors and local communities.

As parks reopened, visitors came to the park system seeking the respite our shared natural and cultural treasures often provide. However, visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic also resulted in alarming upticks in waste, overcrowding and graffiti, including the recent destruction to a prehistoric petroglyph near Arches and Canyonlands. While there was a decrease in overall National Park Service visitation in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, that is an exception to the general trend of steadily increasing visitation over the past decade. For instance, the Park Service saw a 3 percent increase in visitors from 2018 to 2019, which represents nearly 9 million individuals on park trails, restrooms and parking lots. And despite the pandemic, many parks experienced surges in visitors. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore had a 41 percent increase in visits from July to October while Yellowstone hit a record high in October and Zion in September.

Overcrowding in national parks creates a much different experience than what visitors expect and could potentially lead to the degradation of the natural and cultural resources the parks were created to protect. That was true before the pandemic and it remains true today. Visitors come to the parks to experience some of the incredible places in our country that preserve our shared history and protect some of our most stunning, wild lands. Instead, what visitors too often experience is traffic gridlock, dense gatherings and long lines for basic services.

Already this year, NPCA staff heard disturbing stories of families stuck in hours of gridlock in Yosemite over Easter weekend. In April, Yellowstone National Park reported a 40 percent jump in visitation. Arches National Park is having to turn away visitors on a nearly daily basis and Canyonlands National Park has seen a 45 percent increase in visitation so far this year. And now, superintendents are bracing for record-setting visitation during Memorial Day weekend and the upcoming summer travel season while continuing to manage the challenges presented by staffing shortages.

While individual parks have taken efforts to mitigate the impacts of overcrowding, further innovative collaboration will be needed to navigate an interdependent dynamic between parks, visitors, future visitors, communities, philanthropic partners and concessionaires. NPS will also need to critically examine and advance deliberate solutions to the impact active visitor use management will have on people who have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in parks. Making national parks welcoming and relevant for black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and young people must continue to be part of the NPS vision in this second century. Employing an equitable access lens may well help the NPS to identify solutions that address visitor use management and enhance equity at the same time.

We appreciate the committee’s oversight on COVID-19, visitation, management, and planning. Now, as we continue to grapple with the pandemic and get our country back on its feet, we should take the time to address longstanding planning, monitoring and funding issues within the National Park Service. The committee should make sure the next National Park Service Director has a vision for addressing the issues we discuss today.