By Sarah Fiorello

By: Mikayla Lin

The national parks are some of America’s greatest treasures, but recently there’s been a glaring invasion in these areas of natural beauty: crowds. Since 1872 when the first national park, Yellowstone, was established, billions of tourists have visited a national park. In 2020 only, the parks had over 200 million visitors, despite a global pandemic (National Park Service). These unprecedented levels of tourism have not been kind to the environment. Many national parks already experience congestion, becoming bottlenecks of tourist activity and straining local communities. One example is Muir Woods National Monument, a redwood tree grove located just north of San Francisco. Nestled on the hillside of a mountain, Muir Woods is only accessible by a winding, single-lane highway that deposits tourists into a small 150-space parking lot. The approximately one million annual visitors have created increasingly problematic traffic jams that ruin the experience for tourists and annoy locals who live off this road. Visitors have been forced to park illegally on the narrow shoulders of the highway and walk for miles to get to the park entrance or idly wait for a parking space, releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the air. The National Park Service (NPS) strongly considered building overflow parking lots nearby, planning to pave a scenic valley and creek vital to salmon runs near the woods. Local opposition halted these plans. Eventually, the NPS launched a reservation system that allows for a maximum 900,000 visits a year. Yet, this system barely reduces the number of visitors. Other parks have faced similar problems with traffic jams and crowding effects on the environment. Trails have been eroded, roadside vegetation has been damaged, and wildlife, to their detriment, have been desensitized to human activity.

Muir Woods National Monument, California

Unfortunately, as global warming causes a warmer climate, crowds are predicted to get worse. Researchers believe tourism will increase with rising average monthly temperature up to 25°C, at which point visitation will decrease because it will simply be too hot (Fisichelli). As the majority of national parks (excluding parks like Death Valley that already experience extreme weather) are located in temperate locations, longer seasons of favorable conditions are expected, resulting in increased visitation in the coming years. While tourism has provided the opportunity to educate more people about the wildlife, plant life, and history of the national parks and has generated revenue for conservation efforts, the harms of large-scale tourism eclipse these benefits. A troubling pattern is threatening to consume the national parks: that despite tourism being “largely dependent on the natural environment for its continuing survival, [its] ongoing development often consumes and degrades the very same natural resources upon which it depends” (Williams 26). With an increased level of tourist activity comes a pressure to adapt to a model of modern day tourism. Tour buses and chartered adventures must be offered; amenities including hotels, bathrooms, rest stops, and restaurants must be built. Gone are the days of the lone backpacker relying on locals and small communities for help; the tourism industry has taken over. All this development requires massive amounts of resources and energy, harming the natural environment and contributing to climate change in the process. In order to preserve the highly valued environment within the national parks, we must respond to threats of overcrowding and industrialization, while also considering the larger scale threat of climate change looming in the background. Climate change will not only affect climate conditions in national parks, but will also play a role in the existence of animal and plant species and natural attractions such as glaciers and icefields.

In light of all these inevitable stressors, the survival of America’s national parks depends on a symbiotic relationship between tourism, the environment, and conservation efforts. It’s not impossible, but it will take effort. A reservation system is promising, but the number of tourists allowed would have to be severely limited in order for it to be effective. The most probable option is for individuals to choose to be more responsible tourists. The national parks have become idealized, when really, similar places of natural beauty can be found anywhere. Most people go to a national park to experience nature and the wonders of the outdoors when they could have a similar, or better, experience locally. A day spent exploring local treasures will likely result in better memories than sitting in a line of cars at Yosemite or Yellowstone, and learning more about the places we live will only deepen our desire to conserve them. Despite the sublime scenery of the natural parks, visits to them have become superficial; it has become more important to have a picture of Yosemite than to understand its ecology. Perhaps it is time to retire the “National Park” label, so as not to place value in these spaces as a checkmark on a bucket list. What the national parks need to survive are people invested in them for the sake of the environment, not for the human recreation. Those who love a national park should consider moving to a community close to the national park, so that they can give back to the place they take such joy in. Another option, for people who want to leave the confines of their home, or who do not have easy access to outdoor spaces, is to travel instead to lesser-known places. For instance, states like Vermont are trying to attract tourists and the associated economic benefits, demonstrating that not all tourism is bad; only when the scale of tourism grows quickly and places pressure on local communities to cater to tourists does it become a concern for the environment. Vermont’s Green Mountains are just as stunning as those in Great SmokyMountain National Park; in fact, the famous Appalachian Trail runs through both.

Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, photos courtesy of Noreen Pecsok

At this current rate, tourism in the national parks is on the verge of irreparably damaging the environment in those parks, at least before climate change does. As individuals, we can work against this by overcoming the influence of social media and societal pressure, and choosing to vacation elsewhere. We can also become more invested in the natural spaces near our homes, and emphasize preserving all spaces, whether the government has named them national parks or not.itual mindlessness surrounding climate change and allow us to internalize its connection and threat to human existence, precipitating environmental action.

Works Cited

  • Busiek, Julia. “Love Muir Woods? Park Service Asks: Please Stay Away -.” Bay Nature, 6 Jan. 2016, baynature.org/article/love-muir-woods-park-service-asks-please-stay-away/.
  • Fisichelli NA, Schuurman GW, Monahan WB, Ziesler PS (2015) Protected Area Tourism in a Changing Climate: Will Visitation at US National Parks Warm Up or Overheat? PLoS ONE 10(6):e0128226. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128226
  • “National Park Service.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectId=59438.
  • “Quick History of the National Park Service (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/quick-nps-history.htm. 
  • Williams, Angela. “Reconciling Tourism and the Environmental: A Task for International Environmental Law.” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, vol. 9, no. 1, Fall 2007, p. 23-70. HeinOnline.