NPCA submitted the following statement to members of the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations ahead of a hearing scheduled for December 6, 2022.
It was only six years ago that we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), the people who have powered it and the parks we cherish. During the celebration, 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. We rely on national parks to be our retreats and our national memory—to be storytellers and protectors of nature and its sights, sounds and health.
The National Park Service strives to uphold its mission to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” From the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the creation of the Amache National Historic Site just earlier this year, the National Park System has continued growing so that all American’s can access their natural and cultural heritage. Park resources are preserved in perpetuity by the National Park Service staff who work every day to make certain that the American public can learn from, enjoy, and be inspired by some of the most breathtaking vistas and stories that exist anywhere in the world. These national parks tell diverse and impactful stories about who we are as a nation and range from the craggy rocks of Maine in the east, to the sandy shores of Guam in the west, and hundreds of special places in between.
No greater testament to the success of the National Park System can be cited than the ongoing interest visitors pay to these 423 sites. In 2019 alone, 327.5 million visits were made to the park system, which nearly equals the entire population of the United States. These visitors are evidence of the success of the federal government in protecting locations that are both valued by the public and deserving of national park designation. However, the growth in visitation at our popular national parks is also posing one of the greatest challenges that NPS has ever faced.
In 2019, the last year on record before the COVID-19 pandemic started, overall visitation in the National Park System was nearly 20 percent greater than what it was in 2013. The Congressional Research Service estimated that the NPS staff size in 2019 shrunk nearly 14 percent compared to just a decade earlier. The decline in staffing capacity and park funding over the last ten years exacerbates the challenge as NPS works to successfully respond to visitor use increases.
Park visitation numbers have fluctuated during the last three years. Park superintendents and staff should be applauded for managing record high-visitation while navigating an ever-evolving pandemic. Their work, which often went unseen, ensured that park visitors and resources were as safe as possible while unpredictable safety considerations as well as popularity in outdoor activities arose.
The summer of 2022 saw a decrease in visitation at some parks relative to record highs the previous year. As the worst consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic receded, there has been some return of normalcy including where and how people travel. This, combined with rising gas costs and extreme heat and weather events, likely led to fewer people taking national park-focused vacations in 2022. Given the steady trends evidenced in visitation growth prior to the inception of the pandemic, NPCA has no reason to believe that the minor dip in visitation experienced in 2022 compared to the prior two years should be assumed as anything other than a fluctuation that is independent of the larger pattern.
While year-to-year visitation at a particular park unit may be influenced by seasonal weather variability, regional economic outlook, or even local promotional campaigns, NPS ensures consistent visitation data collection year-to-year that allows park managers to analyze larger trends of visitation. When examined critically, the experience of many parks over the past few years fit a pattern of exponential growth in park visitors. Left unmanaged, the crowds that naturally come with such high visitation might unintentionally hinder the ability of the NPS to uphold its conservation mission to protect and preserve park resources, as well as the enjoyment of those resources, as outlined in the Organic Act of 1916.
While visitation has increased overall across the entire National Park System, there are certain iconic parks experiencing such rapid visitation growth that we should be concerned about natural and cultural resource protection. For instance, Rocky Mountain National Park has been concerned about the growing pressures put on the fragile high alpine terrain by visitors packing onto Trail Ridge Road. The heavy concentration of visitors to these beautiful places has led to visitors spreading out beyond existing trails and has increased concerns about wildlife disruption, with elk and moose being pushed from natural habitat corridors. Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and surrounding areas have seen multiple, high-profile cases of vandalism of cultural sites, particularly defacement of Indigenous rock imagery. Further, many parks are seeing such large crowds, including during traditionally off-peak times of year, that the visitor experience is diminished.
To be clear, this is not a system-wide issue. Many parks have not seen a measurable increase in visitation and may not in the immediate future. At a subset of highly-visited parks, adaptive visitor use management planning and implementation are urgently needed to protect park resources in perpetuity. The changing nature of visits and visitors to parks due to the pandemic, increasing types of recreation, climate change, extended shoulder seasons and shrinking off-seasons, and the increase in remote work opportunities mean many parks are likely to continue to see increasing visitation in the coming years. Amidst inadequate budgets for park planning and a priority to help new, young and diverse audiences discover their parks, NPS must increase their ability to manage visitor use across the system in order to meet one of the greatest challenges facing NPS in its second century.
Welcoming and inclusive parks
An area of visitor management that will require NPS’s critical examination and deliberate solutions is the impact of visitor use management on people who have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in parks. Making national parks welcoming, inclusive and relevant for diverse communities and young people must continue to be part of the NPS vision in this second century. NPS must identify solutions that address visitor use management and enhance equity. Significant areas to explore include:
- Ability to Plan: More research is needed on people’s ability to plan their visits to parks and options for mitigating any barriers.
- Enforcement: Perception of safety in parks, as in all other places in society, fundamentally affects visitors’ experiences, and we must incorporate and prioritize safety and perceptions of safety for visitors from diverse communities as we work on visitor use management.
- Expectations: More research and targeted community engagement is needed to understand how perceptions of visitor use management systems affect expectations of the park visit and what can be done to influence intention to visit.
- Language: More research is needed to inform best practices and resources needed for making communication about visitor use management available in a multitude of languages and cultural communication contexts. Even now, many of the systems necessary for park visitors to plan adequately are only offered in English.
- Finances: Research suggests that increasing user fees is not an effective strategy for addressing increased visitation and overcrowding. Instead, implementing or increasing visitor fees only changes who can access those spaces and potentially poses barriers that disproportionately impact or exclude low-income populations. We should invest in non-fee related visitor use management options to ensure that access to parks remains part of the American vision of shared heritage for all to benefit from.
- Location and transportation: Research shows that location and transportation are two related structural barriers that result in reduced access to nature-based parks for people of color compared to white visitors. Location, ease and variety of transportation options should be assessed to ensure equitable access to parks and determine suitability for permits and reservations.
- Technology: Many messaging, communications, permits and reservations tools require visitors to have access to reliable technology and the knowledge to navigate online systems. The research on digital literacy gaps in a park-specific context is lacking and further research in this area is needed.
Close and innovative collaboration is needed to navigate an interdependent dynamic between parks, visitors, future visitors, communities, philanthropic partners and concessioners. Supporting collaborative processes and clear communication with visitors and communities will lead to productive, inclusive work on visitor use management, as has been the case in places like Acadia National Park. Collaboration should be done early and often to support effective visitor use management policy, ensure landscape-level resource protection, and uphold principles of equity, inclusion and justice.
Visitor use management strategies
As outdoor recreation continues to grow across the country and become a larger portion of our economies, parks are front and center in attracting visitors to communities around the country. Those same parks must be able to put equitable and effective visitor use management plans in place to protect park natural and cultural resources while also advancing positive visitor experiences. Failure to do so might negatively impact the long-term viability of the park to attract the visitation that has long been found to boost local economies. To best protect the visitor experience and park resources, parks across the country employ a range of tools to manage the impacts of visitors on natural and cultural resources, facilities, and staff capacity. These tools include:
- Messaging and communications: Managing visitors’ expectations and encouraging pre-visit planning or adjusting plans via extensive outreach before and during a park visit.
- Infrastructure and facilities: Managing visitor movement or behavior by expanding or adjusting hardened facilities including roads, trails, parking lots, visitor centers and restrooms.
- Transportation: Managing how visitors get into and move around a park by allowing or requiring bus or shuttle ridership, improving foot and bicycle traffic, and managing parking areas.
- Permits and reservations: Managing the number of visitors entering a park or part of a park at a given point (time of day, day of the week/month, time of year) via pre-arranged reservations including lotteries. This includes both ticketed-entry and timed-entry.
These management techniques not only reduce crowded areas within parks, but they lessen the environmental impacts that we know come with visitor density. Carefully planned visitor use management can reduce air and noise pollution, reduce disruption to wildlife, and further protect soils and vegetation. As such, adaptable visitor use management systems are a valuable tool to managers in a changing climate. These systems also reduce strain on park facilities and staff, giving them the time necessary to complete the primary responsibilities for which they were hired. These systems and tools can also benefit the park employee daily experience. For example, enhanced mass transit into a park reduces congestion for employees getting to work. Where reservations are employed, gateway communities can benefit from consistency of visitation throughout a season.
In addition to preventing and mitigating impacts, visitor use management tools and systems can meaningfully enhance park experiences. For instance, employing permits and reservations to manage for a specific number of people in a park or location at one time results in easier access to parking and facilities and increased visitor interaction with park rangers (who help form a connection between visitors and resources and inspire stewardship behavior). In places like Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, where there is limited parking, reservation systems have reduced crowding and vehicle density. At Rocky Mountain National Park, the pilot timed-entry reservation system resulted in less crowded trails. These systems result in a better visitor experience, as a lack of crowds allows for less obstructed views, easier access to points of interest, reduced time spent in traffic and waiting in line, and prevent visitors from being turned away at the gate when parks are full. Congress should ensure that park managers have the resources necessary to effectively study the social science that will lead to the best possible management systems for a specific park unit.
Many of these tools were also used effectively throughout the pandemic. Yosemite and Rocky Mountain have utilized entrance reservation systems through recreation.gov. Visitors pick a date and receive an email with their reservation to show the rangers at the entrance stations. Rocky Mountain had already conducted a visitor capacity survey prior to the pandemic and was able to identify daily entrance limits that allowed social distancing at popular sites. At Zion National Park, it was important to continue operation of shuttle buses into Zion Canyon where there is extremely limited parking, but these buses operated at reduced capacity to maintain distance between visitors. NPS utilized recreation.gov to reserve shuttle bus tickets for several months. Each of these reservation systems allowed visitors to have certainty while traveling more safely and responsibly to these popular parks. The application of these tools in response to the pandemic gave NPS insight into how quickly the public can adapt to reservation systems and how to improve the systems in response to public feedback. This can also be useful when international visitors start returning to parks, which will continue to be a major factor as more normal travel patterns resume. Finally, these systems can be applicable in a wide variety of parks, but park managers need continued support to study and deploy these systems to ensure that park resources receive the protection they deserve.
Over the last three years, a subset of parks that have been challenged by high levels of visitation for years piloted various managed access systems. Initially conceived of as pandemic safety precautions, these pilots are part of long-term visitor use management planning processes. Here is an overview:
- Yosemite National Park piloted a ticketed entry system for park entrance in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Each year NPS adapted the system to address emergent issues, such as adjusting each timed-entry “pass” to be valid for 3-days instead of 7-days.
- Glacier National Park piloted a ticketed entry system for a transportation corridor (Going-to-the-Sun Road) in 2021 and 2022.
- Rocky Mountain National Park piloted a timed entry system for park entrance (2020, 2021, 2022) as well as, later, a corridor (Bear Lake Road in 2021, 2022). NPS adapted the system to address emergent issues, such as creating one timed-entry reservation option that included Bear Lake Road as well as one option that did not.
- Arches National Park piloted a timed entry system for park entrance in 2022. NPS is currently analyzing data to determine next steps.
- Zion National Park piloted a lottery system for a trail in 2022 that is ongoing.
For any of the solutions described above to be effective and equitable, further study is needed on how visitor use management systems impact visitors and their trip planning. NPS has a long history of science-based decision making to protect park resources, and this issue should necessitate the same high degree of expertise. Given the growing challenges surrounding park visitation, much greater investment is needed in social science for NPS to determine the best possible solutions. While some parks have staff studying visitation systems and intersections with equity issues, more staff are needed to guarantee that this science is accurate and serves the best interest of the park. NPCA has also heard that parks have inadequate resources to effectively communicate and coordinate with other parks that are facing similar challenges. While each park affected by high visitation is facing endemic challenges, there are potential learning opportunities for parks if greater collaboration was prioritized.
NPCA contracted with Utah State University researchers who conducted visitor surveys in Glacier and Arches National Parks this year. Some initial findings reveal that most visitors to the parks were “first time” visitors, and they were able to navigate the online reservation systems. Most survey respondents prefer to have these online reservation systems in place moving forward. We can provide their final report to the committee when it is completed.
Going forward, NPCA recommends vetting reservation systems, studying the application of recreation ecology science, and enhancing NPS’ capacity (staff, training, equipment) for conducting good social science and using it in adaptive management. These focus areas will underpin a robust set of NPS policies and practices to support sustainable visitor use management so that the parks continue to represent a democratic vision of accessibility for all.
NPCA has long advocated for adequate funding for park operations to improve and maintain infrastructure and add staff for interpretation, search and rescue, law enforcement, resource management — including social science monitoring and data collection – which can also help address the challenges of high visitation. Between 2011 and 2019, NPS lost 16 percent of its staff capacity while at the same time struggling to accommodate a 17 percent increase in visitation. Robust funding would help fill vacant positions, support efforts to address visitor use and climate change, and make progress on diversifying the NPS workforce.
There are thousands of vacant positions across the agency and park system, from maintenance to interpreters, historians, social scientists and more – many unfilled due to lack of funding. Record visitation compounds the impacts of understaffing, as staff take on multiple collateral duties and attempt to keep up with crowds to ensure adequate visitor services. It is not uncommon, for example, to find trail crews attending to busy restrooms or law enforcement officers helping with parking.
While dispersing visitors to less crowded destinations has been suggested as another potential technique to reduce the impacts of crowd density within a park, NPCA has concerns that NPS underfunding and understaffing will present challenges to ensure dispersal is managed properly. Visitor dispersal, which would spread visitors further, out could happen either regionally, with visitors being dispersed to other national parks or public lands, or it could happen within a specific park unit, with visitors being spread out across additional locations that receive less visitor use. Both strategies could lead to unintended consequences if not handled or studied carefully. For instance, visitors who were encountering a temporarily delayed entry at Arches National Park prior to implementing their pilot timed-entry system in 2022, were making their way in large numbers to nearby Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district and increasingly the more remote Needles district. The wait to enter Canyonlands Island in the Sky district stretched to thirty minutes or more, a big change from years past, and the park saw record numbers of visitors month after month. In June of 2021, visitation to the Island in the Sky district was up 62.5 percent from June 2020 and the Needles district was up 146 percent. This just shifted traffic and crowding while not improving the visitor experience.
While record-setting visitation for a historically less-visited park may seem on the surface to be a good thing, parks like Canyonlands are not sufficiently resourced, especially in terms of staff, to serve so many visitors and other parks, like Hovenweep, have cultural resources sensitive to human disturbance. As park superintendents have told us, increased visitation has also led to increased search and rescue needs. If dispersal is encouraged, park visitors could access terrain that they are not equipped for, which could add to the staffing and financial burdens that parks are already trying to manage. Even if visitors are encouraged to explore front-country sites, the park must ensure that there are adequate staff and facilities, where appropriate, to ensure that the visitor experience is maintained and that park resources can be best protected. Staff are already pressed by increased search and rescue operations, heavy use of facilities in need of constant maintenance (e.g., restrooms) and the sheer task of serving public information needs at entrance stations and visitor centers. These demands on staff time for basic operations leaves almost no time available for visitor education about park resources and stories and stewardship behavior, which are key responsibilities of the park.
While carefully planned dispersal to appropriate alternative destinations might be part of the suite of tools parks consider in visitor use management planning, it should be coupled with regional recreation planning to assess impacts on neighboring public lands and communities. In addition, the financial and human resource costs must be considered before implementation. NPCA encourages Congress to coordinate with NPS and land management agencies further before passing any legislation that would intentionally disperse park visitors across public lands without offering any additional funding to manage these visitors.
Additional funding to staff our parks is also an opportunity to diversify the National Park Service, which is challenged by a significant lack of racial, gender, and ethnic diversity. The vast majority of NPS staff, 83 percent, are white, a percentage significantly higher than other federal agencies, while more than three in five are men. The lack of ethnic and racial diversity among park staff is cited as one reason that people of color comprise a disproportionately low percentage of park visitors. For example, only two percent of national park visitors are Black. Bringing rangers back to our parks and ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce while doing so, can help make more Americans feel welcome in their parks.
We appreciate the committee’s oversight on visitor use management in some of our most precious natural and cultural treasures. Now is a critical time to address longstanding planning, monitoring and funding issues within the National Park Service. The issues that face the National Park Service today are multifaceted, requiring a nuanced and technical response that NPS has the expertise to employ if they are provided the necessary capacity and funding. The intersectional challenges of climate change, outdated infrastructure, and increased visitation on our public lands, demand a coordinated response. As the National Park Service prepares for its next one-hundred years of preservation and education, the challenges that must be addressed are unlike any that have been navigated previously. We applaud the committee and NPS’ commitment to ensuring that the full American story can be experienced by generations to come.
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