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National Park Service Breaks Law Over Crowd Control

by Countable | 10.26.17

What’s the story?

The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 directs the National Park Service (NPS) to create management plans that identify and implement "visitor carrying capacities for all areas" of America’s national parks. This could include capping the number of visitors or developing criteria for containing the impact of an abundance of visitors.

Recently, there’s been that abundance. As the New York Times stated in a headline last month, "National Parks Struggle With a Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors." In 2016, the National Park Service tracked a record 331 million visits. This year, the NPS is expecting to surpass that number.

Yet, because of budget cuts and maintenance backlogs, the NPS hasn’t addressed the issue of overcrowding — and in failing to do so, is breaking the law.

Why does it matter?

As the Times’ story explained, "the number of park visitors has reached an unprecedented level, leaving many tourists frustrated and many environmentalists concerned about the toll of overcrowding." The article talks about “selfie-takers” clogging slender paths, shuttle busses “filled like sweaty subway cars,” and toilets in Zion National Park marked off with a sign reading: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

"National Parks Punt On Overcrowding," stated a report last year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The watchdog organization for NPS employees found that the “statutory requirement for parks to establish carrying capacities [has been] widely ignored.” Of the 108 National Parks, Preserves, and Reserves, PEER found that only seven had established carrying capacities — and only one had implemented a carrying capacity plan for the entire park.

"The safeguards Congress enacted to prevent national parks from being loved to death have become dead letters," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. Referencing the NPS campaign called “Find Your Park,” Ruch said:

"Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ this summer the challenge should be called ‘Find a Place to Park.’"

As Pacific Standard explained, "this law breaking…is not entirely the NPS’s fault." The magazine noted that even though parks are increasing in popularity, “the agency suffocates under a nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and is threatened by steep budget cuts.” The Trump administration is looking into ways “to slash the agency's discretionary budget by 13 percent and shrink its workforce by more than 1,200 employees.”

"How can the NPS adequately manage enormous crowds if it is hemorrhaging both cash and employees?" Pacific Standard asked.

What do you think?

Have you visited a National Park recently? Did you experience overcrowding? Zion National Park is considering requiring reservations for entry in 2018. Should othernly national parks consider the same? Or does Congress need to revisit the National Parks and Recreation Act? Or provide the NPS additional funds? Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then tell your fellow NPS visitors below.

— Josh Herman

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(Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park)

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