Endangered by Popularity: Obstacles to Preserving our National Parks

by Cassie Pearson

Imagine walking through a forest surrounded by trees over three hundred feet tall.  Imagine smelling the sulfur of gushing hot springs and watching a geyser explode. Imagine a canyon so grand it reveals over a billion years of geological history. All of these breathtaking places are real, and they are an important part of the American landscape. It is  no surprise why the United States National Parks have been called “America’s best idea” since their creation. These places of pure ecological and natural beauty are extraordinarily unique in their own right, and the National Park Service has accepted the challenge to preserve nature’s gift since 1916. During the past century, National Park visitation has been a popular activity for people all around the world. However, when people overuse the parks, it results in ecological consequences that are visible and damaging. The changing modes of access to National Parks throughout time have contributed to its overpopulation, which has ultimately caused  environmental degradation.

America has a love affair with its National Parks, but these places of pristine beauty are now endangered by their popularity. Access to the Parks has changed dramatically over time from walking to riding horses to  travelling to them by railroads. With the development of personal transportation such as the automobile and the International Highway System, access to the National Parks became much easier for the general population to see. As a result, visitation to the National Parks has grown. By 2016, over 82 million people visited National Parks in that year alone (“Annual Visitation Summary Report for: 2016”). The popularity of visiting these beautiful places in America has become so wide reaching  that these parks are now in danger of their beauty and pristineness being harmed by the increase in accessibility. Author Richard Sellar explores how different parks are viewed today than in the past and writes, “marred by teeming, noisy crowds in campgrounds, visitor centers, grocery stores, and restaurants, and by traffic jams on roads and even on trails” (2). Even the most beautiful places our country has to offer cannot escape environmental damage, particularly from air and water pollution, invasive species, and human development (Arrendale). While National Parks to many seem like an escape from reality, they are not immune to the dangers of our visitation. This is a problem that must be reversed for the sake of preserving our land

By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States had finally completed its nationalist goal of connecting North America “from sea to shining sea.” After gaining land through costly wars, such as  Mexican-American War and the War of 1812, and through the Louisiana Purchase, the United States attained the much-desired ideology of Manifest Destiny. Subsequent explorations of this newly acquired region by  Lewis and Clark and Jedediah Smith allowed them to discover the extraordinary geography, wildlife, and botany of the North American West. Early visitation of this land by artists such as Thomas Moran, who visually expressed the importance of preserving nature’s gift to the U.S., quickly gave the Western land a sense of  national importance.

In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed Congress’s bill making Yellowstone the first National Park in world history. Section 2 of the bill states its purpose: “such regulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention of their natural condition” (“Yellowstone National Park Act”).  Environmentalist John Muir pushed to further expansion of land preservation in other places like the Sierra Mountains in California, which influenced President Teddy Roosevelt to take government action. As a result, in 1916 Congress established the National Park Service within the Interior Department to manage the parks as a unified system. In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its centenarian, now serving over 400 National parks, monuments and recreation areas (Weeks). It is thanks to the National Park Service that the American preservationist ideal was established, and has been upheld for over a century.

Development of Access to the National Parks

By the late 1800s,  the first transcontinental railroad was completed, which allowed people to receive access from New York to San Francisco by  passenger train. The relationship between railroads and National Parks remained harmonious for many years. As Alfred Runte states in his book, Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks, “The [National Park Service] agency was exactly what the railroads wanted, promising the government would finally pay for the infrastructure and allow the railroads to concentrate on attracting passengers” (xii). By closely working together, the railroads brought more people to National Parks than ever before. The railroads “redoubled their reciprocity,” and train cars began displaying photographs and paintings of the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and other southwestern and northwestern landmarks (Runte 13). Railroads began to act as a monopoly on access to the parks. For example, the Northern Pacific Railroad claimed to be the only railroad that would make Yellowstone “speedily accessible” to tourists (Runte 25). Not only did railroads spend money promoting the parks through advertising, they also lobbied for them and were successful in helping to create Glacier, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks (Jewell). All of these new parks not only meant more passengers for the railroad companies but also a huge increase in visitation. Runte explains how “In 1915, of the 51,895 visitors entering Yellowstone National Park, 44,477 had come by rail” (72). Railroads were instrumental in the development of early access to the National Parks in the West.

Transportation in the early twentieth century differed from that of the past and changed  the way people accessed National Parks in the future. America became a nation that desired immediacy. The automobile, an independently owned vehicle, fulfilled that need for immediacy. Why wait for a train when you could just hop in your car and visit the beauty of America’s national parks any time you wanted? As a result, tourist numbers in the 1920’s and 30’s rose significantly, with most arriving by car rather than train (Finnessey). As more cars drove on the worn down  roads, new roads needed to be developed to reduce travel time. Under the Eisenhower administration, the United States felt it had an answer to the ever important issue of road development. The Interstate Highway system flourished in 1956 with the passage of the Federal Highway Act and was “designed to replace a mix of different road types with a network of multi-lane, limited-access roadways built to a uniform design specification” (“Impact of the Interstate Highway system”). National Parks took advantage of the Interstate Highway system in a similar fashion as they did with the railroad system; the proximity of the highway meant easy access to the parks, and  the parks even promoted certain highways such as the Park-to-Park Highway, which connected 12 National Parks, and the Blue Ridge Parkway that provided a physical connection between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks (“Historic Roads”). The parks enjoyed that passengers and drivers could now see the distant views of the beautiful scenery they were travelling to see while driving on the Interstate (“Impact of the Interstate Highway system”). Those views continue to bring visitors to the parks each year by automobiles.

Recently, National Parks welcomed visitors who desire other forms of transportation as well. For example, snowmobiles are popular among crowds who visit parks during the winter season. When roads are closed due to icy conditions and snow buildup, these vehicles provide a better  way to travel around the parks. The National Park Service regulations allow snowmobile to be used in more than 40 of the parks (Snowmobile Usage in National Parks). As access to National Parks increase, so do the amenities to accommodate the visitors. Yosemite National Park became so popular that it had to create a section reserved specifically for the comfort of tourists, Camp Curry Village. The services flourished, which meant “gas stations, lodging, places to eat, parking spaces, and other facilities” (Lowry 67). The comfort of not having to stay at the park with a tent and sleeping bag appealed to a wider audience. In an increasingly mobile world, cell phone access in the parks became crucial for increased accommodation and visitation. Due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996,  cell companies implemented towers on federal land, and people were then able to receive cell-phone access in parks such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon (Arrendale). Today, National Parks have become increasingly commercialized by the comfort they provide for their visitors.

Impact and Environmental Degradation

Over time, the popularity of National Parks due to different modes of access has had a significant impact on the geography and wildlife of the lands. Crowds walking by foot developed “social trails” in Zion National Park have “trampled vegetation, eroded soils, stirred up sediments in rivers and streams and displaced and collected surface artifacts” (Draft General Management Plan).  Crowds of people waiting for entrance when the parks are busiest also leads to stress. Pressure on the development of nearby lands to provide for tourists creates  air and noise pollution (Cox). Park expansion intended to appeal to crowds has negatively impacted the wildlife of the parks. In many cases, animal migration roots are destroyed due to the newly built roads and commercialization of the region surrounding the parks (Arrendale). Wildlife is unable to  compete with the fast moving pace of the development of the park system. Human visitation alters the breeding cycles of animals, changing their natural behaviors (Finnessey). As a result, National Park biodiversity has been severely impacted by the ecological problems; this includes over 398 threatened or endangered species (Arrendale).

Automobiles have caused environmental degradation of National Parks. In Yosemite National Park, Lowry expresses how the “soothing sounds of the Merced [River] was sometimes just audible over the roar of automobile engines. The sweet scent of the pines was occasionally overwhelmed by the smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes. Sightlines were often obstructed by traffic jams” (63). The natural beauty of National Parks is being compromised for  the convenience of the tourists. In Zion National Park, vehicles have decreased the air quality, forcing the park to cut down on the number of people that can enter (Draft General Management Plan). Cars, trucks, and recreational vehicles release exhaust fumes into the air, and in addition to creating pollution clouds, these fumes can also destroy trails (Arrendale).  In 2015, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks saw a twenty-three percent increase in tour buses, demonstrating the rise in tourists’ use of damaging vehicles (Nowakowski). Similar to cars, snowmobiles also negatively impact  air quality due to exhaust emissions. “Snowmobiles use two-stroke engines, in which induction of fresh fuel and expulsion of exhaust take place simultaneously through openings in the cylinder. For a number of reasons, two-stroke engines emit substantial amounts of air pollutants” (Snowmobile Usage in National Parks). Heavy amounts of Carbon monoxide are unhealthy to ingest for all animal species. Overuse of National Parks causes environmental degradation through pollution, depletion, and damaging the landscapes that the parks are supposed to protect.  

Proposed Solutions

The overpopulation of National Parks, though amplified today, has been an issue debated by the National Park Service for decades. In 1978, the National Park Service passed  the National Parks and Recreation Act to manage policies that require all National Park units to have a broad-scale general management plan (Draft General Management Plan). The purpose of a GMP remains to describe the path the National Park intends to follow over the next fifteen to twenty years, including visitor use and natural resource management (Draft General Management Plan). The Zion and Yosemite National Park general management plans are clear representations of how the parks continue to acknowledge the impact of increasing tourists. For example, both Yosemite and Zion have implemented scheduled bus, tram and shuttle services to control transportation within the parks (Yosemite National Park). Yosemite has also planned to reduce visitation by cutting park-wide lodging by 15.2 percent (Yosemite National Park). Eliminating campgrounds in the Valley has allowed more land to flourish and animals to graze without interruption from extensive numbers of tourists. Though these general management plans predicted visitation to increase during the twentieth century, they underestimated how popular these parks would become. As a result, more work remains to be done in order to ensure that the National Parks we value can remain pristine while people continue to enjoy them.

To help protect the land that the National Park Service vowed to preserve, National Parks must limit the use of cars and recreational vehicles. Eliminating a limited number of  roads and parking lots promotes the possibility for struggling species to thrive once again in land where they once lived. Rather than keeping their vehicle at the National Park, people should leave them at designated places outside of the park grounds and use a tour bus or a monorail to access to the park after parking their vehicles. Zion National Park implemented a similar system, forcing day visitors to leave their cars parked outside of the designated park area and enter from a bus system run by the National Park Service. This change did not cause a decrease in tourism; for in 2015, 3,648, 846 people visited the park, and in 2016 the number increased to 4,295,127 (“Annual Visitation Summary Report for: 2016”). Parks should also establish a reservation system for visiting on a daily basis, meaning that once the park meets its quota, no more tourists are allowed in for the day. With this solution, services in the parks such as lodging and restaurants can remain for the visitor’s comfort. Though some might argue that this would discourage last minute trips to  national parks, it remains necessary that wildlife is not bombarded by excessive amounts of visitors and flora receives a chance to recover.

If you visit a National Park and spend time among the authentic landmarks, you are taken back to a time when land was valued and not so easily torn apart. Due to the importance of being connected with the history of the open and cared for land of national parks before they were legally considered national parks , I propose bringing back a historically utilized  mode of access: the railroad. When railroads were the most popular form of transportation to National Parks, preservationists were not concerned with the impact they would have on the land; the preservationists and engineers were working together to ensure that the railroad would not harm the land excessively (Runte). The train tracks built were a safe distance away from many environmental landmarks, unlike the new asphalt roads. By requiring  people to park their cars at stations and ride the trains into the parks, air pollution from vehicles would be limited and newly planted grass and trees could replace roads. Using this public transportation system would also allow the parks to determine how many visitors the park could inhabit on a daily basis. Surprisingly, some of the American railroad conjoined National Park legacy still exists; you can take the Empire Builder line run by Amtrak to Glacier National Park, the Amtrak San Joaquin line to Yosemite National Park, and Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line to the Grand Canyon (Jewell). Building more access to the Park’s by railroad could  also help create jobs and enforce a feeling of unity between all of the national parks in the United States .

The National Park Service has been a unifying feature of our country for over a century . The goal it possesses has remained the same over time, to “conserve natural resources and values and also provide for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of current and future generations” (Fisichelli). As someone who has been fortunate enough to experience many of these national treasures, it is to protect the most beautiful places our nation has to offer. Once you walk among the towering Sequoia trees, see the Old Faithful geyser of Yellowstone erupt, or  experience the vast depth of the Grand Canyon, you are taken back to a time when disturbing car horns didn’t exist or when people were not distracted by text messages. If people are causing the destruction of the National Parks through their modes of access, then it is those same people who can try to fix their damage so the Parks can maintain their promise made in 1916: preserving special places for everyone to enjoy.

Works Cited

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