National parks gear up for biggest year yet; Daines leads hearing on congestion

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the National Park System gears up for what is likely to be its most crowded season, lawmakers are trying to bring congestion and overcrowding relief to the some of the country’s most popular parks. 

“We need a breathing place for our national lungs, and a lot of that has to do with intelligent ways of visiting the parks,” Ken Burns, a filmmaker who produced a documentary miniseries about the national parks, told lawmakers Wednesday in a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee. 

Visitation to national parks slowed in the first few months of the pandemic, as many closed their visitors centers and other points of access  — but, with Covid restrictions easing, some national parks have already shattered their visitation records this year. 

More than 87,700 visited Grand Teton National Park last month, up from 59,000 in April 2019. Yellowstone National Park saw over 67,000 visitors in April, compared with 48,000 in April 2019, and Zion National Park had nearly 470,000 visitors in April, compared with 372,000 two years ago.

“We have congestion issues in our parks, and need to figure out ways to relieve some of those pressures,” said Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona. The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was to get an update on the National Park System, but — with tremendous stress placed on parks, park-partner organizations and local communities — the hearing mostly focused on the issue of overcrowding.

“One of the problems we are encountering is kind of an inherent tension of loving places to death,” said Maine Senator Angus King, who chairs the committee. “How do we balance public access to the maximum number of Americans without compromising the experience, by virtue of all of those Americans coming to visit those parks?”

The use of digital technology, to see which parking lots and restaurants are already full and provide real-time messaging on congestion will help, Burns said. A new National Park App was released last month, which helps visitors plan their trips ahead of time. 

Many national parks have tried using reservations and timed-entry systems to better manage the flow of visitors into the parks during the pandemic. Proponents of reservations say that it’s also a great way to protect resources and limit crowds. Whether these tools are going to stick around as Covid restrictions ease, however, is unclear. 

“Management actions vary greatly based on the individual circumstances, ranging from proactively encouraging visitors to visit less crowded areas through trip planning, all the way to implementing sophisticated timed-entry systems,” said Shawn Benge, acting director of the National Park Service. 

Each management action goes through a comprehensive planning process at the park level with a robust level of civic engagement, Benge told subcommittee members. 

“I just want to reiterate my very, very strong opposition to a reservation system, and instead request that the National Park Service give consideration to locally driven, alternative solutions that preserve visitor access and enjoyment,” said Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who requested that Zion National Park revert back to no reservations, and Covid restrictions ease on the shuttles that are used in the park. 

Benge committed to working with Lee to address overcrowding issues in Zion, but said that he could not lift Covid restrictions on the shuttles until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their social distancing guidelines. 

“When it comes to managing visitors and congestion management, our ultimate goal is to provide a quality visitor experience and make sure we’re doing a good job in protecting resources for future generations,” said Benge. 

Senators and witnesses also discussed promoting lesser-known parks as part of a way to deal with overcrowding. 

“Some of these hidden gems that we have are a chance we have to get away from it all, and could maybe solve the problem of congestion in the better known parks,” said Senator Steven Daines of Montana, ranking member of the subcommittee. 

A subcommittee hearing to discuss solutions to congestion will be scheduled for later in the summer.  

But, even if there are traffic jams, Burns said, “it’s a good line to be in.”