Overcrowding the Outdoors

26 September 2023
By Laura Theobald

The National Park Service was created in 1906 to conserve American lands and history and to “provide enjoyment … for future generations,” a dual-purpose balancing act that becomes harder and harder as more visitors, from all over the world, flock to these stunning landscapes.

Crowds at Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park
Photo by Kevin D. Jordan

Cars lined the shoulders of Going to the Sun Road, spilled over from the packed parking lot at Logan Pass. Near Iceberg Lake, dozens of people lined up to use a remote, gruesome pit toilet. Beyond the gates of Glacier National Park, vehicles waiting to enter stretched clear back to the main highway.

Park superintendent Jeff Mow ’81 knew something needed to be done. It was July 2017, and visitation was skyrocketing, with over a million people, more than ever before, coming that month alone. That was nearly double numbers from the same month just two years prior.

Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, pictured along the boardwalk near Logan Pass
“We know that people want to get out and see their parks. It’s a wonderful thing. But how do we balance that with protecting resources?”
Jeff Mow ’81, former superintendent at Glacier
Photo by Greg Lindstrom, Flathead Beacon

“Glacier used to have a reputation as a black belt park: we weren’t used to seeing people who had never been to a national park before,” he said. “Social media has been like a tidal wave that’s completely overwritten that narrative. Everybody wants to take a photo right from the one most popular spot.”

Soon the Montana Department of Transportation approached Mow and the park. The state had a planned construction project for Highway 2 that was bound to fail if traffic backup from Glacier couldn’t be controlled. So in 2021 Mow implemented a pilot reservation system for entering the park.

Dan Maturen
“Unfortunately, parks have to be more restrictive. Not everyone can see Taylor Swift in concert.”
Dan Maturen ’79, seasonal park ranger, lodge manager, firefighter, and guide at Glacier and other parks

“National parks are just coming to grips with their increased popularity,” Mow said. “And every park has to address what’s specific to them.” There is no one-size-fits-all solution for all of the National Park Service’s 424 units. “As much as I hate to say it, parks have to be more restrictive,” said Dan Maturen ’79, who has spent 25 summers working in national parks, primarily in Glacier, as a lodge manager, park ranger, firefighter, and guide. “Not everyone can see Taylor Swift in concert.”

Glacier isn’t the only national park to implement reservation systems to control an influx of visitors. Zion National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, and a handful of other sites have started experimenting with different reservation projects. Along with social media, the park service’s 2016 centennial and its “Find Your Park” campaign have fueled rapid growth in visitation.

Almost 312 million people visited America’s national parks in 2022, and more than a quarter of those visits occurred in the top eight most popular parks. Three sites alone—Blue Ridge National Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park—had more than 10 million visits. Along with traffic and parking problems, increased visitation has led to crowded trails, deteriorating signs and picnic areas, trampled vegetation, erosion, diminished water supplies, and harmful wildlife encounters.

Deputy Chief Ranger Therese Picard stands next to her patrol car during her morning shift at Schooner Head Overlook in Acadia National Park, ME
“All trails look flat on a map.”
Thérèse Picard ’93, branch chief of law enforcement and emergency services for the northeast region of the NPS

Jeanne Calhoun ’80, former chief of Grand Canyon National Park’s science and resource management division, has seen all these issues and more. “Grand Canyon is one of the most dangerous parks,” she said. “It’s a vertical park, and you start at the top—then you have to hike back up. We are doing a huge amount of search and rescue. People don’t realize how much the temperature changes when you go down a thousand feet, and in the summer, people don’t take enough water—or they take too much water and their electrolytes are off balance.”

At Acadia National Park, Thérèse Picard ’93 echoes Calhoun’s concerns. “All trails look flat on a map,” she said. As branch chief of law enforcement and emergency services for the northeast region of the NPS, Picard says her main concern is safety. And as more and more first-time park visitors arrive, search and rescue missions have spiked.

To help manage surging visitation, Acadia implemented timed entry passes for Cadillac Mountain—the first spot in the United States hit by sunrise—in 2021. Picard said it worked, to an extent, but it also displaced a lot of people who then put pressure in other areas of the park. Timed entry also creates staffing challenges for parks already feeling crunched budgets. Acadia employees staffing the entry station into Cadillac Mountain at times had to wake up at close to 1 a.m. to be in place by 3:30—made worse by the fact that often in local communities, housing prices have been driven so high that many park employees can’t afford to live nearby.

Lindsay Brandt
“Working at Glacier reminds me of when I first got to Carleton. People care about the park’s mission. And I feel like I’m having a positive impact on the world.”
Lindsey Brandt ’17, lead education technician at Glacier

“Places everywhere around here are getting turned into VRBOs or Airbnbs,” said Anya Helsel ’08, the park librarian at Glacier. “I live in an apartment complex, which is nice, but I’m also paying twice as much as when I arrived in 2015. Since I’d like to be here long-term, I’d like to buy, but it’s extremely expensive.”

Barriers to access

Reservation systems may also cause problems for equitable access. Many reservations need to be booked months in advance and require a certain level of tech-savvy and institutional knowledge about how the park system and its websites work. While data on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are sparse, a few studies suggest that overall, national park visitors are overwhelmingly white (78 percent, according to NPS’s Comprehensive Survey of the American Public from 2008, the most recent year for which data is available) and more highly educated than the general population (the same study found 53 percent of visitors had a university or graduate degree, compared to 29 percent of the U.S. population). They will have much more familiarity with booking advance reservations.

Laura Chihara
“[Working as a ‘pantry girl’] you really got to know the personality of the park.”
Laura Chihara, Carleton mathematics and statistics professor and a past seasonal worker at Glacier

Local communities, retirees, and the elderly are also pushed out as the ability to spontaneously swing by a national park dwindles, says Laura Chihara, Carleton professor of mathematics and statistics. Before her career in the classroom, Chihara worked summers as a “pantry girl” at Glacier, mainly chopping lettuce. It was an incredible experience, she said, with live music outside the lodge at sunset. “You really got to know the personality of the park.” (After returning to the park a few years ago she said the change was massive: Highline Trail, basically empty in her day, was now back-to-back hikers.)

Travel costs—especially lodging near national parks—can also be barriers for many visitors. For political science major Angie Pius ’24, the first time she stepped into a national park was in 2020, when she took a summer job working at Yellowstone National Park. She loved it so much she spent the next summer in Arizona at Chiricahua National Monument and the following summer at Grand Teton National Park; this summer, she’s back at Yellowstone, working as a seasonal interpretive ranger.

Angie Pius
“I was surprised at how expensive visiting a national park can be.”
Angie Pius ’24, seasonal ranger at Yellowstone

“I was surprised at how expensive visiting a national park can be,” Pius said. “I think that’s why I’d never been before. Growing up, my family was low-income, so we only took vacations to visit family.”

Even at Pipestone National Monument, a site created specifically to allow Native Americans to quarry red pipestone, issues of access have come up. The park issues about 50 annual permits for Native Americans from 23 designated tribes to quarry the stone, but the wait list for an annual permit can be up to 10 years. To address this, the park worked with tribes and began issuing daily and monthly permits as well.

“Dialogue with the tribes is so important,” said park superintendent Lauren Blacik ’09. “Through that dialogue we learn how to better protect pipestone and how to ensure that access is appropriate.” The park has also worked to overhaul its exhibits, making them less Eurocentric. Since then, the visitor questions they field are much deeper. And although it’s one of the smaller park units, visitation is on the rise, with 78,036 visitors last year.

Pipestone Nastional Monument Superintendant Lauren Blacik
“Through [dialogue with Native tribes] we learn how to better protect pipestone and how to ensure that access is appropriate.”
Lauren Blacik ’06, superintendent at Pipestone National Monument
Photo by John Noltner

On the larger side of the park spectrum, visitation is surging at Grand Canyon, which is grappling with issues of access for both Native Americans and the general public. “We are trying to work with Native Americans on many different aspects, including providing them access to resources that other people do not have and renaming things so that we acknowledge the history and the heritage,” Calhoun said.

Grand Canyon does not currently use a reservation system for its three million annual visitors, but it likely will need to sometime soon, Calhoun said. The park does require permits for backcountry camping, which can be snapped up four to five months in advance. To try to keep access fair, the park sets aside a percentage of backcountry permits to be made available on a first-come, first-served basis each day. “We try to make it fair so it’s not just for the people who know the system—though we’re trying to make the system fair, too,” Calhoun said.

Innovating around access

Other parks are coming up with other creative ways to accommodate swelling interest in national parks. At Katmai National Park, cameras have been installed around the park—which is accessible only by plane—so visitors from all over the world can view bears, salmon, and other wildlife from the comfort of home. Only 33,908 people visited the park last year, but more than 10 million accessed it through its live web streams.

Stephen Thompson
“There’s often a tradeoff between public access and the preservation work we do. We help parks think through how they want to balance that.”
Stephen Thompson ’06, management analyst for the National Park Service

Within the park service’s administrative team, management analysts Stephen Thompson ’06 and Tommy Drake ’08 help parks think through how they provide visitor experiences. Drake is specifically working with Yosemite National Park now on congestion issues (which recently included an hourlong meeting on trash), and one solution may be to implement a reservation system. But not all parks are nature-based, like Yosemite; some are cultural or historic sites, such as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, and others are referred to as recreation sites, such as the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area. Solutions to access problems for some of these parks might include cameras, like at Katmai, or digitizing artifacts or records.

“There’s often a tradeoff between public access and the preservation work we do,” Thompson said. “We help parks think through how they want to balance that. But for every park where people get shut out of a permit or reservation—for example, I went to Haleakalā National Park last year and couldn’t get a sunrise pass—there are plenty of other wonderful experiences.”

In some sense, Mow says, national parks are really just microcosms of the rest of the tourism industry, where museums have been requiring timed entry for years. “This is an experimental time for the National Park Service,” he said. “We know that people want to get out and see their parks. It’s a wonderful thing. But how do we balance that with protecting resources?”

While parks grapple with visitation and ecological challenges, Mow’s advice for visitors is to plan early, be flexible, and realize that what most people see is just the tip of the iceberg.

“There are so many national parks,” Blacik said. “I hope people try to dig a little deeper and discover some of those lesser-known stories.”

The Carleton Parks Pipeline

A surprising number of Carls have worked for the National Park Service and, particularly, at Glacier National Park. The connection stretches back to 1895, when Carleton Professor Lyman Sperry explored northwestern Montana, planning to purchase land for himself, but ultimately he decided the area should be accessible to all. He advocated for its designation by Congress as a national park, which happened in 1916.

Sperry, who taught physical science, geology, zoology, physiology, hygiene, and sanitary science at Carleton from 1876 through 1905, recruited Carls to take the Great Northern Railway from Northfield to what would become Glacier National Park. In exchange for free rail fare and lodging (but no wages), they built hiking trails that still exist. Today, Sperry Glacier and Sperry Chalet in the park and Sperry House on campus pay tribute to the pioneering professor.

Though terms of employment changed, the Carleton-Glacier pipeline continued through the 1970s, when the college’s repository of U.S. Geological Survey maps inspired many students—including president of the Glacier Park Foundation John Hagen ’71 and former superintendent Jeff Mow ’81—to spend their summers working in the park. Carleton’s strong reputation in the sciences undoubtedly plays a role in the sustained connection, but not all Carls who found their way to Glacier have been geology or biology majors. Glacier’s park librarian, Anya Helsel ’08, was an American studies major, and its lead education technician, Lindsay Brandt ’17, was a history major.

Part of the draw, Brandt said, is the shared excitement about learning. “Working at Glacier reminds me of when I first got to Carleton,” she said. “People care about the park’s mission. And I feel like I’m having a positive impact on the world.”

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