If America’s national parks had a theme song, it might be “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” These natural treasures are suffering, not from indifference or inattention, but from more visitors than ever before.
Last year the number reached nearly 331 million — 57 million more than in 2013. Yellowstone had 4 million visitors, a 40 percent increase since 2008. At Acadia in Maine, the increase has been 60 percent.
Who can blame the crowds? Writer Wallace Stegner called America’s national parks “the best idea we ever had,” and Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary series fueled interest. But huge crowds can make them hard to enjoy, or even to get into.
Last summer at Acadia, the National Park Service reports, the road to the Cadillac Mountain summit had to be closed 49 times “due to gridlock congestion and public safety concerns.” At Glacier in Montana, fistfights over scarce parking spaces are not unheard of. Bison sometimes back up traffic for miles in Yellowstone.
Then there is the unavoidable problem of, um, human waste. Yellowstone workers had to pump out 250,000 gallons of the stuff last year, 19 percent more than the year before. In the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which consists of more than 3 million acres in Montana and South Dakota, 200 toilets have to be emptied frequently, at a cost so far this year of $80,000.
No one wants to close the gates on the parks. But something needs to be done to keep the crush of humanity from ruining what all those people come to see. Now-departing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was onto a good idea when he proposed to raise the daily vehicle admission fee at the most popular parks from $25 or $30 to $70. But public outrage forced him to settle for charging $35.
The higher price would have reduced the number of visitors without posing a big financial obstacle to families that spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on flights, hotels and meals for their national park vacations. It would have made a big contribution to reducing the ever-growing $12 billion maintenance backlog in the park system. And it would have left most national parks free, as before.
What won’t work is to keep doing things as they’ve been done in the past. Like any precious national resource, our necklace of national parks has to be managed to preserve its value for Americans of today and for centuries to come. Protecting the parks clearly requires hard choices and more resources. “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” said Mae West. But she never had to service a wilderness outhouse.
-- Chicago Tribune