From Sea to Crowded Sea: The Effects of Overcrowding In the National Parks

 Hikers may soon find it more difficult to ascend the iconic Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park — not because of any change in the trail itself, but because park officials seek to implement a permit requirement in 2022.

This comes on the heels of an immense boom in park attendance over recent years, raising concerns about the safety of hikers’ and visitors’ experiences.

“Growth has continued rapidly in 2021,” said Susan McPartland, the park’s visitor use manager. “Increasing park popularity has led to intense crowding and congestion along the Angels Landing trail.”

Should a day-use permit system be introduced, it would include two lotteries beginning March 1, 2022 — an advanced lottery and a day-before lottery. Both would require a $6 application fee, as well as a fee of $3 per hiker.

Visit here for more information on the proposed Angel’s Landing permit system

In 2021’s first nine months alone, Zion National Park recorded over 4 million visitors and is on pace to be its busiest year it has been open. The image of hikers standing in line on the trail has become common, clinging to chains with 1000-foot drops on either side of them, waiting for their turn to summit.

The massively popular trail sees over 300,000 trekkers a year, which equates to just under 1000 a day. Along with this comes a reported 13 deaths since 2000, three of which were within the last four years.

Jordan Griffith, a student at Southern Utah University, recalls hiking the trail in September, noting that it was “crazy busy and [he] had to wait a long time.”

Many consider the influx of tourists to be unsustainable and believe it detracts from the park experience. Timm Rohweder, a foreign-exchange student from Germany, welcomes a permit requirement.

“It would not deter me,” Rohweder said. “I feel like it is much nicer and also safer to hike when it is not overcrowded.”

This pattern of overcrowding and its effects does not stop at Zion. National parks across the country continue to log record-breaking numbers, such as Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, which have already seen more visitors in 2021 than any year prior.

Kevin Wright, an adjunct professor at SUU teaches classes in recreation policy and public land management. He is also the Forest Supervisor for Dixie National Forest.

“The recent surge and long-term increase in visitation to national parks and public lands in general has and will continue to impact the visitor experiences and safety, and puts pressure on the sustainability of the resources they come to experience,” Wright said. “You are already seeing changes in how this growth is accommodated in places like Zion National Park, where there are multiple efforts to address transportation, dispersal of people to other areas and permit systems.”

Utah is famous for its “Mighty 5,” a common nomenclature given to the five national parks housed in the state: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands, three of which have recently seen more visitors in single months than ever before.

This increased traffic affects more than the enjoyment of the tourists. Hikers often elect to leave designated paths and establish what are known as “social trails,” leading to erosion, destruction of foliage and damaging fragile soil that is vital to the ecosystem.

According to Alastair Lee Bitsóí of the Salt Lake Tribune, growing crowds in Zion have also led to more incidents of vandalism, littering and human waste being expelled improperly.

Further impacts of overcrowding include “[risks to] public health and safety, increased cost of living to surrounding communities, pressure on infrastructure, water and air quality and diminished visitor experience,” said Wright.

Parks such as Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Acadia have experimented with entry reservation requirements, though those efforts were put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and may not be permanent.

Visits to Yosemite dropped from over 4 million in 2019 to just over 2 million in 2020 when the reservation system was implemented and just over 2.5 million in 2021. The requirement ended Oct. 1, 2021.

“Though they are just one tool to deal with overcrowding, permit systems and reservations have shown to be beneficial for the resources they are trying to protect and for visitor safety,” Wright said. “This does, however, negatively impact the amount of access the public has to federal lands and people’s ability to experience these special areas.”

He adds that every area has its own challenges, and there is no universal fix to overcrowding. Further, minimizing crowds drawn to these popular parks may also detract from potential boosts to local and state economies,

According to the Natural Resource Report published in 2020 by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior, Utah saw 15 million total recreation visits to NPS sites in 2019. This provided 19 thousand jobs, $614 million in labor income and nearly $2 billion total economic output. Zion alone yielded 4,000 jobs and $300 thousand of economic output.  

“Another impact permit systems have is to local and rural economies, which, in Utah, have become service oriented and dependent on tourists,” Wright added. “If federal land managers begin to limit how many can come experience an area, this places a subjective limit on economic growth opportunities.”

On July 28, Maine Senator Angus King, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, held a hearing to address this overcrowding and explore potential solutions.

“We must recognize that overcrowding in the parks, itself, can degrade the natural resources and wildlife that these units are designed to protect,” King announced. “We can accidentally love our parks to death.”

King offered three remedies to the situation: implementing reservation systems, increasing staffing and managing traffic.

To accommodate the immense growth in popular parks, King suggests requiring permits for entry or popular sites, as well as highlighting lesser-known parks to distribute attendance more uniformly.

He also illustrated the disproportionate separation between growing park attendance and a stagnant number of employees.

“The staff levels are relatively fixed and the visitation has almost doubled, or more than doubled,” King claimed. “So this is an indication of the problem of the static staff versus the astronomical growth in visitation.”

Lastly, he advocated for shuttle systems to limit the number of private vehicles on the roads, such as those used by Zion.

“Often, we talk about too many people, but actually we’re talking about too many cars,” King said.

As park attendance is expected to continue to rise and shatter records, striking a balance between conservation and park access becomes increasingly difficult.

“Increased visitation to national parks and public lands is a complicated and nuanced issue,” Wright maintained. “There needs to be much more investment and forward-thinking planning in order to conserve and sustain the resources people are coming to see.”

Story by Jared Clawson

Photos retrieved from the National Park Service