COVID-19's Legacy in Parks and Public Lands
Crowding is way up, and land managers are trying to balance equity, experience, and landscape preservation in real time
Last summer, the lines would start forming at 3 A.M. on the road to Jenny Lake Campground in Grand Teton National Park. Visitors who hadn’t snagged a first-come first-served camp spot the night before would wait outside the gates for someone to drive out. They lined up long before dawn to try to get a spot to sleep in the popular park, dozing in their cars until they spied an opening. Jenny Lake, with its sweeping views of the Tetons, has long been popular, but in the face of COVID-19, crowds were overwhelming. Which is why this past year, the park switched to a reservation system for the coveted spots.
The National Park Service just released its numbers for 2021, and visitation was up by 60 million visits—or more than 25 percent—from 2020. It was especially noticeable at the marquee parks. A quarter of visits occurred at the eight busiest parks, which include Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and Yellowstone. “The pandemic has exacerbated visitor demands, especially in the most popular parks,” says Jeffrey Olson, communications director for the NPS Natural Resource Stewardship and Science department, which oversees research in the parks. “Parks near urban areas are under considerable pressure, and those parks that were already running full tilt had extra pressure.”
In many ways, that’s great news. Access is crucial for a range of reasons, and Olson says a big part of the Park Service mission is bringing more people in. But it’s also creating tension. Much of our public land infrastructure, from boardwalks to bathrooms, isn’t built for the levels of crowding parks and other public places have seen since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the US two years ago. With visitors overrunning outdated and underfunded systems, sleeping in their cars, and stomping out new, illicit trails, something had to change.
Kristen Brengel, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association, says it’s one of the biggest issues the National Park Service has ever faced. And it doesn’t end there—state and local parks are also facing similar issues. So parks, from small ones to big ones, are in the midst of trying to figure out how to spread the crowds out and set limits for use. They’re striving to balance equity and access with experience and ecological integrity, and they’re trying to do it in real time: The crowds are there and the impact is happening.
Jennifer Newton, Grand Teton National Park’s social scientist, says that to address the changes, you first have to quantify the problem. She’s in the midst of three big studies to drill down into the socioeconomic and recreational background of the visitors, but top line, she knows the park and that its trails are seeing more people.
“Our official statistics give us a really great pulse of visits per year and by month,” she says. In 2021, Grand Teton saw 11 percent more visitors in the park than their last most popular year, 2018, and she thinks the pandemic underscored the reasons why people visit parks: high gas prices, unstable global economies, stressful situations, and the desire to be outside, connecting with other people, when a lot of other places are closed.
She says they’re also seeing more people visiting in months that used to be quiet, like March and November. There’s no true off season anymore, and behavior is changing too. “One of the things that I think is interesting is that we’re seeing more trail use, instead of just visitation,” she says. “Our trail use increased by 29 percent compared to 2019, and it’s up 49 percent over five years.”
Olson says that’s happening in other parks too, and that unintended consequences are cascading. For instance, Grand Teton’s chief of staff Jeremy Barnum said the park saw surprising effects including an uptick in heat exhaustion as visitors waited for crowded shuttles or spent more time than they planned outside, exposed to sun and altitude. The crowding also causes impacts to the landscape, like social trails, shredded soil from illegal parking, and burns from unsanctioned campfires. And while land managers are working on studies to pinpoint the worst stressors, they also have to act now, because the impacts are rolling out in real time.
First, they’re trying to tell visitors what they can do to alleviate crowding through their own decision-making, like coming early or late, visiting during less crowded times of year, or considering less popular parks. Newton says they’ve instituted a Plan Your Vacation Like a Park Ranger initiative—which highlights under-the-radar NPS sites and encourages smart visitor behavior—to try to create realistic expectations.
Olson adds that he’s been telling people to check out parks after dark—"People have a keen interest in the night skies—it’s real old, old human-being stuff, he says—and spreading the word about parks that might be less crowded and less well known. “We’re trying to point out that there are places where there is going to be more pressure, so if you’re going to the Smokies or Glacier or Olympic, look at the other parks in the area,” he says. “We lose touch with the vastness of this country, and with all the wonderful places to explore, when we’re sitting at home.”
The majority of park visitors come by car, and so parking and traffic control can be a tool to regulate crowding in wilder places. Barnum says that they’ve been doing that in places like Wyoming’s Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, where a ranger is stationed to enforce “one car in, one car out.” They’ve found they need to keep it staffed to keep people from parking on the vegetation or starting fights. In other places, they’ve allowed what they call predatory parking, where drivers can circle until someone leaves. “In some ways, people are managing their own experiences,” Barnum says.
When self-policing doesn’t work or it leads to bumper-to-bumper roads—like Olson says has been happening at Rocky Mountain National Park, his closest park—the NPS is starting to institute new permit and reservation systems.
Barnum says the NPS has struggled with out-of-bounds camping in recent years, particularly when first-come, first-served campgrounds like Jenny Lake fill up. By switching to a reservation system, visitors know ahead of time whether they have a spot or not, and so have reduced unsanctioned camping.
Those reservations are not always popular, particularly with locals, who, in the past, could plan on a shorter time frame, but Barnum says they’ve had to be clear about expectations and limits. And it’s not just there—and not just for camping or backpacking. Acadia National Park started taking reservations for morning parking on Cadillac Mountain, the first place in the country that the sun hits each day. And last year, Yosemite instituted $2 reservations to enter the park, within a three-day window. Management there says the reservation system might not be permanent, but that they’re trying to figure out how to corral crowds.
They’re also trying to spread crowds out over the day. Rocky Mountain National Park instituted a timed entry program, where visitors sign up for two-hour entry windows. And it’s not just happening at big, splashy national parks. Down the Front Range from Rocky, Eldorado Canyon State Park, outside of Boulder, Colorado, just instituted timed entry restrictions for this coming summer. Olson says this aids in restoring both the visitor experience and the workers’ resilience. “We firmly believe the timed entry permits are going to help, especially as we’re trying to make staffing decisions, when the most people are there.”
Limiting crowds only goes so far, however. Even a few people can create a big impact, so they’ve also had to draw some hard lines about where people can go, especially when they’re impacting vulnerable species. In the Tetons, rangers have asked skiers and other winter recreators to avoid zones that are habitat for threatened bighorn sheep. It’s been a really hard decision, because the habitat is also highly valued recreational terrain. “We are trying to strike a balance,” Newton says. “Part of our job is preserving the resources forever, while another part is letting people have the experiences.”
To enforce those kinds of closures, and to regulate parking and reservations, you also need people. Olson says that’s been a problem as staff levels have slipped, budgets have stagnated, and seasons have elongated. “Our seasonal workforce is the backbone of visitor services,” he says. “If you’re a park that has a budget for six months of seasonals and your season has grown over time to nine months, that’s stressful.”
He says increased funding is another crucial piece of maintaining parks into perpetuity, and they’re trying to show that need through the numbers too. One of the big socioeconomic studies that Newton and other social scientists are working on will show the ways visitors have positive impacts—how they can strengthen communities in and around the parks. “Our last report showed something like a $41.7 billion benefit to the US economy and 340,000 jobs,” Olson says. “When it comes to spending plans and budgets for parks, I think it’s safe to say that parks could use additional funds, but appropriations have been increasing.”
He notes both the park infrastructure plan that passed a few years ago and the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will help take care of roads, bridges, and facilities. And in the most recent federal spending bill, the National Park Service got a $142 million funding increase over current levels. He says that’s great, but it’s also not a magic bullet.
In the face of greater impact and growing access, we need it all: patience, funding, plans, and creativity. We need respect for boundaries and for other people’s sense of space. And we need to keep outdoor spaces accessible for everyone.