Report Aug 11, 2017

Growing Visitation in Utah’s National Parks

Just over 14.4 million people from around the world visited Utah’s 13 national park units in 2016, a 21% increase from 2015 alone. People flock to these iconic landscapes to hike to breathtaking vistas, contemplate dark, starry night skies, and experience awe-inspiring sunsets over the parks’ famous sandstone spires and arches.

While national parks have been drawing more people, Congress has been systematically cutting funding for the National Park Service, resulting in fewer rangers for visitor education and safety, overworked park staff, delayed infrastructure repair and improvements, reduced visitor center hours, and damage to park resources.

At Utah’s most popular national parks, managing record numbers of visitors with declining resources has become one of the top challenges for land managers and local communities. For example, over the past several years, visitors climbing up to Angels Landing in Zion National Park have experienced packed foot traffic on the trail along sharp drop offs nearly 1,500 feet high, and those attempting to view Delicate Arch in Arches National Park have encountered overflowing parking lots and throngs of people.

NPS is working with stakeholders in Utah and across the country to address the logistical challenges of hosting millions of people each year. Some of these challenges can be overcome with increased staff and financial resources, however, NPS must also consider the effects on natural and cultural resources, the quality of the visitor experience and visitor safety. Trying to accommodate high concentrations of people over longer and longer periods of the year can have long-term impacts on delicate desert ecosystems and important cultural sites. In addition, many visitors seek solitude and quiet as an integral part of their national park experience. This is more and more difficult to find at the parks’ most sought-after vistas and trails.

Here is how you can get involved.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, the fifth-most-visited national park in the country, has seen a 60 percent increase in visitation in the past 10 years. The park has had record visitation levels in four of the past five years, with 4.3 million visitors in 2016 alone, causing traffic congestion and gridlock in the park and neighboring communities, long lines for shuttles and restrooms, an increase in emergency calls and visitor complaints, and damage to natural and cultural resources. The number of park rangers has not substantially increased in the face of growing visitation, leaving park staff scrambling to keep up with increasing search and rescue calls, visitor contact and education, and care and maintenance of the park throughout the year. The essence of the national park experience itself is at risk as the opportunities to experience the grandeur of Zion without a crowd diminish.

In spring 2016, NPS initiated a process to “identify management strategies and appropriate use levels that promote the long-term stewardship of park resources and high-quality visitor experiences” — in other words, a plan for handling this substantial increase in visitors.

The process will establish maximum park capacities and consider ways to actively manage the number of visitors to the park’s more developed destinations accessible by roads, including Zion Canyon, Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace. Early in the process, NPS held stakeholder meetings and listening sessions and analyzed nearly 500 public comments, including those submitted by NPCA.

Based on public input, NPS developed preliminary concepts that are open for public review until August 18, 2017. Two of the preliminary proposals include an online year-round reservation system for entry into the park and one of the proposals would also require a reservation to be able to access popular tourist sites such as heavily used trails. Preliminary concepts also cover options for changes to shuttle operations, oversized vehicles, commercial services and special use permits, messaging and information distribution, and facilities and infrastructure improvements.

Since NPS is still early in the planning process, park managers have not selected their preferred management strategies or analyzed the impacts of their proposed strategies. They will make those decisions after gathering feedback and analyzing the impacts.

NPCA supports the park’s proposals to establish visitor capacities and actively manage visitor access through a reservation system to stay within those capacities. We recognize the incredible challenge NPS faces in seeking to balance the needs of visitors while upholding their mission to protect the unique resources that make Zion special. We believe this balance cannot be achieved without a commonsense approach to limiting the number of visitors when it exceeds what park resources can safely accommodate. You can learn more and provide your feedback by visiting https://parkplanning.nps.gov/documentsOpenForReview.cfm?parkID=113&projectID=58542.

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Similar to Zion, visitation at Arches National Park has doubled over the past 10 years with nearly 1.6 million people visiting in 2016. This has resulted in booming business in the local gateway community of Moab, but it has also worsened traffic congestion both in town and at the park. Congestion at the park entrance often creates a dangerous situation as cars line up along the highway, and frustration levels can escalate as visitors try to find parking at popular sites inside the park.

In 2015, park staff initiated a planning process to reduce traffic and crowding at both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The overall goal of this plan is to “protect and enhance the current and future visitor experience in the parks while protecting park resources and values.” NPS has been working with local and regional stakeholders to find solutions to the congestion issue.

One of the solutions NPS has been evaluating is a timed-entry or reservation system for the parks. A reservation system would account for the number of visitors the park can actually accommodate during the busiest times without impacting resources and visitor experience. It provides visitors the certainty of entrance during peak seasons and reduces crowding. In contrast, other alternatives, such as more parking lots or a second entrance to Arches, would accommodate more cars and increase visitor numbers, threatening park resources.

The proposed reservation system during the peak season would allow visitors to either reserve a space online in advance or obtain one of a limited number of day-of entry slots offered at the park entrance. After all slots are allocated, additional cars would not be allowed inside the park for the remainder of that day. Once visitors enter the park, however, they can stay as long as they like.

NPCA supports a reservation system at Arches and Canyonlands since it would account for the number of visitors the park can accommodate during peak times while minimizing impacts on park resources and ensuring a high-quality visitor experience. A reservation system also offers park staff the flexibility to alter the number of cars allowed into the park per day and at certain times of the day, depending on the traffic flow and visitor experience inside the park.

NPS has gathered input from the public and is completing an analysis of the preliminary strategies proposed for this traffic management plan. The agency anticipates releasing the analysis for public review in the winter of 2017. Learn more here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=59437.