This was a banner year for our national parks. In 2016, we celebrated 100 years of America’s “best idea,” to quote environmentalist and nature writer Wallace Stegner. Many of us flocked to our national park units to honor and experience our shared, national treasures and lands.
Unfortunately, the National Park Service’s centennial campaign, Find Your Park—which was created to inspire people to get outside more and to learn about and enjoy nature—and its Every Kid in a Park program—which grants fourth-graders and their families free entry to more than 2,000 federally managed lands and waters—may have done their jobs too well. A record number of tourists have discovered our national parks in the last two years, and some have apparently forgotten that these lands were set aside not only for them but for future generations, as well. They’ve acted as if these cherished places were theirs alone to disrespect, deface and destroy.
With all of the huge challenges our national parks will face in the coming presidential term, does our behavior in them have to be one of them?
Today, the National Park Service oversees 413 sites, including 59 major national parks that cover 84 million acres located in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In 2015, national parks saw their highest visitation ever, with more than 305 million people. That’s a lot of space and a lot of people to have to police. But it’s clear we need to.
Lately, National Park Service units have been grappling with illegal camping, resource theft, wildlife harassment, vandalism and other misbehaviors. In July 2016 alone, law enforcement rangers handled more than 11,000 incidents at the 10 most visited national parks.
For example, in Yellowstone National Park, increasing numbers of visitors have transformed its usual annual summer rush into a sometimes-dangerous hubbub. Visitors have been increasingly getting too close to the park’s bison, elk, grizzly bears and wolves; and more and more of them are treading on sensitive thermal features and camping in off-limits areas. In 2016, many of these actions made news headlines:
• In May 2016, a family of Canadian tourists put a bison calf in their SUV, presuming it was in danger because it was alone in the snow. Bison, however, are physiologically equipped to handle harsh winters. The family’s misjudgment cost the bison its life after attempts to reunite it with its herd failed.
• In June 2016, a Washington state man was killed after leaving a designated boardwalk and falling into a near-boiling hot spring.
• In another incident in June 2016, a Chinese tourist was cited for illegally collecting water from the park’s thermal features.
In the East, in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, visitors frequently go off-trail in Big Meadows, a unique type of wetland and host to the highest concentration of rare plants in the park.
More than 52,000 warnings for bad conduct were issued in our national parks in 2015 (the latest year for which there are records), up almost 20 percent from the year before.
Getting Facebook cred
Some of the bad behavior in our national parks is the result of the popularity of social media. People in Yellowstone National Park often seek to take photos of themselves standing within a few feet of bison in order to show off their exceptional exploits to their social media “friends.” Those photos are then seen immediately by a few hundred people, who repost them to hundreds more. To get even more hits, visitors are then tempted to get even closer to bison. Eventually, the bison do what bison do when they are threatened: they charge. “Aggressive” bison are often put down.
It’s not only wildlife that social media threatens. Our prized places, too, are in danger. In June 2016, a woman who wanted to post her daring deeds on social media was finally sentenced for her 2014 escapades, in which she vandalized sites in national parks around the country.
The mission of ecotourism, of course, is to enhance the conservation of wild spaces and species through the promotion of such natural resources as tourist attractions. We’re all aware of ecotourism’s benefits: it boosts local economic growth, provides jobs and improves environmental awareness. National Park Service activities are responsible for more than 200,000 jobs and have a $30 billion impact on the national economy through visitor spending. Numerous scientific studies have shown that getting outside is also good for people’s physical and mental health, helping to ease depression, improve memory, reduce stress and strengthen the immune system. In addition, our national parks provide a uniquely American experience, bringing people together to learn about our national heritage.
But ecotourism also has the potential to cause some unintended consequences. In order to bring large numbers of people to wild places, buildings and roads have to be built, which ultimately changes the landscapes we want to protect. Increased human interaction with wildlife can disrupt the balance of an ecosystem. Wildlife can become habituated to people, change their normal patterns to avoid people or get killed on roads or in remote areas.
We should keep in mind that there won’t be many more opportunities to create new national parks in the coming years. President Obama recently designated what is likely to be the last, large new national park ever established on the East Coast.
There will be so many challenges to our parks in the years ahead. Let’s not let our behavior become one of them.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,