Our National Parks Have a Popularity Problem. Here’s How it Should Be Fixed

With the recent focus on social distancing, the parks are becoming even more popular. To the point that you’re not really distancing yourself from crowds.

My family loves the outdoors. We spend as much time in the solitude of nature as we can. Often, this means camping in one of the 58 National Parks in The United States. There’s something very therapeutic about being with nature. From the beginnings of our country, people have understood the healing power of time alone with the land. Mr Rogers, that guy who talked to children in the neighborhood, worried that we were being overrun with too much “noise.” He said, “I’m very concerned that our society is more interested in information than wonder, noise rather than silence … Oh my, this is a noisy world.” He said this before Facebook, and other social media existed.

People are figuring out that he was right, and that’s becoming a problem. I can remember visiting national parks in the 70s and 80s during summer vacations and always having a place to camp. In fact, staying in a national park was typically the last thing we worried about. Reservations were for stops on the way, in private campgrounds with swimming pools.

Today, if you don’t have your trip planned a year ahead of time, you’re probably not going to get an RV campsite in a National Park. We’ve been trying to book Yellowstone for two years. Often the parks will allow booking up to 12 months in advance, and if you don’t have your plans lined up, stop what you’re working on and book within the first hour or two of that one year window, you’ll come back empty handed.

campgrounds full signs are a common sight at national parks

This shortage of campsites is the result of a 100 year old National Park system in which many of the camping areas have not been updated in decades. As more and more people buy RVs (and buy into the advertising the National Parks do) they compete for the same limited number of sites available when I was a kid. Expecting Americans to compete in the current rat race for limited campsite reservations (which feels a whole lot like the dance we had to go through for the recent opening of the Star Wars rides at Disney) is not only ridiculous, it’s horrible management.

Things have to change. We are not the same country we were 75, 50 or even 20 years ago. I understand we have an environmental responsibility to protect our National Parks, but before you start in with that argument, what better way to learn about why we need to protect nature than by visiting a National Park? Every single park I’ve visited (and I’ve been to at least half of them) has enough space to add campsites. They’ve got plenty of space, and most of the time, it’s areas that don’t impact the beautiful namesakes each park is known for. I’m not suggesting we put campsites near geysers or on the sides of mountains and sand dunes. I’m suggesting we use the dirt roads and fields next to the existing camp sites. Last summer, we toured Glacier National Park. There are 13 campgrounds in the park and almost none of them are able to fit a modern RV of 25 feet or more. Bushes are growing into the campsites and unless you have a very small setup, you’re out of luck. The best advice is to stay at one of the many private campgrounds outside the park (which is encouraging more emissions pollution, which isn’t great for the shrinking glaciers).

Entrance Fees to Big Bend National Park in 2020

“But that development costs money,” you say, “and we can not afford developments with the current NPS budgets.” Perhaps. But someone needs to explain where all the money is going. Let’s take a look at the average park entrance fee (this does NOT include camping, as that is extra per day). Big Bend National Park, in Southwest Texas, posts an entrance fee per car of $30. This is one of the least visited parks in the US park system. In 2019 the park reported 463,832 visitors. If we consider the average number of passengers per car visiting the park to be 4 (it’s not that high) and we divide the total (463,832) by 4, we have vehicle revenue of $3,478,740.00 (115,958 x $30). By contrast, Zion had a visitation in 2019 of 4,488,268 which, by the same math would be entrance revenues of $33,662,010.00. Does it really take $33 million per year to maintain Zion?

Add to that the original promise made to Americans, when the parks were purchased with their money that,

“It is the sense of the Congress that any work, service,…benefit,…use,…or similar thing of value or utility performed, furnished, provided, granted, prepared, or issued by any Federal agency…to or for any person…shall be self-sustaining to the full extent possible…”

The Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952, approved August 31, 1951, contained an across-the-board provision with direct application to fee collection in the parks.

Something has to change. That change needs to result in more places to camp in our national parks. If the US Government cannot manage the revenues generated in the park system to such an end as to accommodate most of the park owner / citizens that want to visit their park, then they are failing. It may take raising park fees, changing management to private organizations or something completely different, but in any case, a full and complete explanation of where the money is going needs to happen first. It’s not OK to use park entrance fees to subsidize other government agencies or projects.

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