Balancing recreation and conservation

How overcrowding is challenging management at national parks

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Courtesy of NPS

Roger W. Toll stands tall in dirt-crusted work boots. He places his large, weathered hand on the brim of his forehead to shade from the sun, setting his gaze on the expanse before him: a broad formation of earth that gradually rises to sheer stone, guarding the alpine jewel of Longs Peak. It’s been a while, but he’s finally back home. He smiles.

It’s 1923, his third year as Rocky Mountain National Park’s superintendant. He ponders the paradoxical scene that lies before him. By awarding the beautiful, natural landscape the status of National Park, it could attract a compromising amount of traffic that could endanger that beauty.

His gaze shifts south, falling over some more obscure peaks in the distance.

In 1941, five years after his tragic death, the crest behind and to the left of Longs Peak would be christened Mount Toll in his honor. Before he died, Toll inaugurated an enthusiastic agenda to honor the newly established National Park Service’s intent to conserve the scenery, the natural and historic objects and the wildlife in order to leave them unimpaired and provide enjoyment for future generations.

Toll established the early ethos of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP): accessibility for as many people as possible, while leaving some land untouched by development. His main goal was to find a balance between recreation and conservation in RMNP. Though what this meant within the larger context of other parks across the country was another mission that stumped him entirely.

“There is no sharp line between necessary, proper development and harmful over-development. The best judgment and active work of all concerned must be focused together in order to secure the best results,” he wrote to the U.S. Interior Secretary in 1922.

Since the early 1900s, the fine line has not gotten any sharper. The National Park Service (NPS), as a whole, has been tilting on a development fulcrum since its inception. Today’s major competing constituencies are generally the same that Toll wrestled to balance: the visitors that speak for the public and the science that speaks for the land.

When these two agendas collide, managerial difficulties arise. Take overcrowding for example. Within the last decade, as visiting numbers have skyrocketed, many parks have been struggling with what it means to maintain the service’s founding intent and Toll’s lifelong work.

RMNP, for instance, has faced a dramatic increase in annual visitors over the past six years. As these numbers rise, the impacts also increase on the wilderness that NPS vows to protect.

“Balancing conservation efforts with increased visitation is kind of an uphill battle,” says Elizabeth Howard, a RMNP ranger. “It’s something that I don’t think we’ve mastered yet.”

Howard says that education efforts have been the primary contributor to maintaining a healthy balance throughout RMNP’s visitation hike. This allows management to spend fewer resources on cleaning up after patrons and can curtail many harmful, and easily preventable interactions with the ecosystem.

RMNP’s Education and Outreach Program claims to reach more than 10,000 students per year. Mark DeGregrorio, RMNP’s education program manager, says within their programs they “place a lot of emphasis on leave-no-trace principles and work to minimize [visitors’] impact to whatever extent they can.”

Howard says that the shuttle bus has been a crucial step toward ameliorating the effects of increased visitation. She says the bus system has not only lessened traffic and parking struggles, but has also helped curb the negative impact car emissions have on the air quality in the park.

However, despite the efforts of the shuttle, DeGregorio says there are still more cars in the park than would be ideal, “and that’s a function of the fact that we’re still a car-based society.”

In popular areas around RMNP, like Bear Lake Trailhead, the parking lots can fill up before 8:30 a.m., DeGregorio says. Once the lots are full, private vehicles have the option to drive farther to larger lots, where they can use the shuttle to access the trailheads.

“In the old days,” DeGregorio says, “if they couldn’t park [at the trailhead], they’d go somewhere else and disperse the use of the park. Nowadays, with the shuttle more people can come in at once, and that possibly leaves [the environment] more impacted.”

This further embodies the catch-22 of national parks: lessening the amount of private vehicles throughout the park can actually increase the amount of total visitors.

Yellowstone National Park has also watched this manifest after management’s reaction to a 2006 report provoking concern that snowmobile traffic caused noise and air pollution that negatively impacted wildlife.

Policy changes reduced snowmobile numbers, but also increased the passenger-to-mobile ratio, ultimately resulting in more foot traffic. Scaling down the amount of snowmobiles was an important step in reducing direct stress on animals, yet whether or not the enlarged tourist presence negated the reduction has yet to be studied.

Howard looks to Zion National Park as a model for the possible future of RMNP’s transportation infrastructure. Some roads in Zion are open solely to the shuttle, which is free and collects people from nearby towns and hotels, immensely reducing the number of private vehicles entering and circulating the park.

Successful shuttle use is not the case elsewhere. Earlier this year, Arches National Park, which does not have a cohesive shuttle program, was forced to temporarily close on Memorial Day weekend due to “a chaotic and dangerous traffic mess,” as cars lined up for miles along the two-lane highway leading from Moab, Utah, into the park.

The mass of visitors at Arches, which jumped 20 percent in 2014, leaves parking lots jammed and overflowing with illegally parked cars. Kate Cannon, the park’s superintendent, has pushed for new, albeit controversial, tactics to hopefully resolve these conditions. She’s suggested a two-fold approach: increasing entrance fees and implementing a reservation system. The first order was executed when Arches raised its prices, as did RMNP, earlier this month. Considering a reservation system, however, has sparked considerable controversy within the local community and the wider NPS.

Some worry that reservations will be discouraging to tourists who don’t plan ahead, likening it to hanging a “Not Welcome” sign on the gate. Nevertheless, Cannon maintains it would actually create more certainty and a more pleasurable experience to tourists because they would be assured entry without waiting in an obnoxious traffic line.

Others claim that Arches should focus its efforts on expanding the infrastructure within the park to accommodate more parking lots, better access roads and picnic areas that will encourage visitors to evenly spread throughout the park. This month, the Arches management opened a forum for public input on alternative plans for traffic congestion, through which they hope to accurately capture visitors’ opinions and concerns.

But capturing the public’s opinion is only one half of NPS’s conversations about the future. As with the case in Yellowstone, it’s important to use science to translate nature’s concerns into a language easily digestible by park management. With the inevitable upward-trending visitor numbers, more national parks across the country will be faced with similar dilemmas. Simply designating an area as a National Park is no longer enough to ensure its preservation.

But at the end of the day, Howard considers NPS a success. “If we didn’t exist, what would this land be like?” she asks. “It would be privately owned and chopped up and developed. It wouldn’t be half as good as it is now.”