In quiet places,
we yearn for absolution.
But peace swiftly flees.
It’s not surprising that 99.2 percent of us want our national parks and monuments to continue to stand—or even grow—in their current sizes and statuses. Attendance records show that this year, we love visiting them more than ever.
The summer of 2017 has seen record-shattering crowds in our jointly owned national lands. Unfortunately, that has meant traffic jams and overcrowding at our most iconic and treasured places. I experienced this myself in May, when I took a trip to Yosemite National Park. With the waterfalls at their peaks this spring, it took a lot of patience and several extra hours of travel time just to approach the park gate.
With such obvious outpourings of love for these special landscapes, why is reducing their size—and budgets—even on the table?
Most people head to our national parks and monuments to find a connection to nature and a semblance of solitude. But finding peace in wildlands is difficult when those wildlands are terribly overcrowded.
This summer, many national parks have had to navigate through what’s now being termed “greenlock”—gridlock in natural surroundings, as in well-known national parks such as Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite.
For example, Yellowstone National Park’s popularity has skyrocketed from two million visitors in 1980 to more than four million in 2016. Grand Canyon National Park saw 2.3 million visitors in 1980. In 2016, it hit the six million mark. Acadia, Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks are being overwhelmed with humanity, too, poised to lose the very thing the national parks were created to provide: a sense of naturalness and a feeling of seclusion.
Already strapped and feeling the pinch
While more Americans enjoying their national parks and monuments is a positive development—hopefully creating more stewards for them—the crush of visitors is causing two big problems: 1) a steep decline in the quality of our visits and 2) damage to the ecology of these intact, natural places. Yet in spite of this and an enormous backlog of staffing and maintenance issues, the president has proposed decreasing the park service budget by 13 percent, which would be the largest cut to the agency since World War II.
Today in many of our national parks, hikers have to weave among hundreds of other people on one-lane trails eroded by overuse. Trash bins overflow, and human waste is becoming a problem on favorite trails. Lines of vehicles for first-come, first-served camping spots start forming at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., with many campers driving away empty-handed. Wait times for shuttles are exponentially growing. Reaching the foot of a once-isolated waterfall can feel more like arriving at a crowded beach.
And the feet of all those visitors are doing damage. They trample aquatic insects, fish habitats and vegetation. Animals are being crowded out, causing some wildlife to lose its fear of humans. That usually ends poorly for the animals, requiring them to be moved out or put down.
Some parks are even being forced to consider a reservation system where a prior authorization will be necessary to get into a park or to go on some of the most prized hikes.
The irony of losing public lands when they are most in demand
The irony is that while it’s evident we need public lands more than ever—and more of them—the administration is actively working against them. Earlier this year, there was a call for comments on the executive order to shrink the size of more than two dozen national monuments. According to the Sierra Club, although 99.2 percent of the 2.8 million public comments received during Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review expressed support for maintaining the national monuments as is, the secretary is urging the president to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in California and Oregon.
The good news is that as we await the final details of Zinke’s recommendations, several conservation groups are preparing to file lawsuits challenging the impending monument downsizings on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. Many legal scholars who have studied the Antiquities Act—the 1906 law that gives the president the authority to establish national monuments—believe that the current administration will have a difficult time defending in court any substantial monument reductions. And, no matter what the district courts first rule, appeals are likely. So, years of litigation are before us with a chance that the issue could end up at the Supreme Court.
The real danger may be that this assault on our monuments has distracted us from the long-term goals of ecologically restoring landscapes that have been overused and protecting additional lands. Going back to defend already hard-won places takes energy, money and time away from the other demanding work that our parks need right now.
Poems for precious places
I think a part of what’s causing this year’s crowds at our national parks and monuments could be fear; dread that we may soon lose what means so much to our psyches and spirits as Americans.
You have already done so much. You have sent in 2.8 million comments to save these places, and you have gone out in droves to see them. But I’m going to ask you to do one more thing today; something that doesn’t involve your money or your outrage.
To celebrate its 101st birthday, the National Park Service wants you to share your national park stories and experiences by haiku poem. An unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin, haiku contains three lines. Line one has five syllables, line two has seven syllables and line three has five syllables. After you’ve composed your poem, share your creative works on your favorite social media platforms, using #Parks101 in your posts.
To get you started, I’ve included two haiku poems in this post, the second of which is below:
The lands we so love
are falling away from us.
Can our hearts catch them?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,