Yellowstone and Yosemite will continue to be overcrowded unless officials implement a reservation system at more national parks and hire additional staff to handle the influx of visitors, federal lawmakers said Wednesday.
Those were two suggestions made by Angus King, a U.S. Senator from Maine, during a Congressional hearing about how to alleviate overcrowding at the nation's 423 national parks. King also floated the idea of steering people to the "lesser known jewels" in the parks system, like Big Bend National Park in Texas, as well as restricting the number of cars the public can bring to a park.
After months of lockdown during the pandemic, Americans are now flooding the national parks, leading to 4-hour wait times and increased litter along park trails. King said Wednesday he believes visitors are now "loving our parks to death."
"The tension and the paradox we have is we want visitation to our national parks, but we don't want the visitation itself to impair the experience of the national parks or the park itself," King said.
The number of visitors to Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah so far in 2021 has doubled since March 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported. Yellowstone this past Memorial Day weekend saw a 50% increase in the number of cars entering the park, compared with the same holiday weekend in pre-pandemic 2019; and Canyonlands National Park in Utah saw a 30% climb in visitors in April 2021, compared with the same month in 2019, the newspaper reported.
Most of the visitor growth is concentrated in the largest, most popular parks in the system, lawmakers said. Glacier National grew from 2.2 million visits in 2010 to 3 million in 2019. Yellowstone grew from 3.6 million to 4 million in those same years, according to federal data.
National Parks Service officials said visitor counts took a dip in 2020 due to the pandemic, but they expect 2021 to break records.
Overcrowding has prompted some park officials to launch online reservation systems at places like Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park and Montana's Glacier National Park.
The reservation route works well, according to Kevin Schneider, the superintendent of Maine's Acadia National Park. Schneider said his staff implemented a reservation system this summer and it has created a steadier pace of visitors who want to drive up to Acadia's Cadillac Mountain.
"Visitors understand that there's only 150 parking spots on Cadillac Mountain," Schneider said during the hearing. "We want people to have a really high quality experience and not everybody can be up there at the same time in their cars."
In the parks without reservation systems, visitors say there are too few places to park. One way to eliminate that, King said, is making visitors park their car miles away from a national park then take a free shuttle onto the grounds.
"Often we talk about too many people, but actually we're talking about too many cars," King said, adding that "free visitor shuttles and private partners could allow us to continue growing the number of people in parks while limiting vehicle traffic."