Jul 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

National parks "drowning in tourists"

Annual recreation visits to U.S. national parks
Data: National Park Service; note: Gateway National Recreation Area is excluded due to missing data in 2021. Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

National parks across the U.S. are overflowing with a post-pandemic crush of tourists, leading to increased issues with congestion, traffic jams, user experience, strain on staff and increased damage to the parks.

Why it matters: Some are seeing such a record number they're being forced to limit, and even close, access to certain areas to avoid the danger of eroding the land. The result, ultimately, could change the way Americans interact with the parks going forward.

By the numbers: The chart above shows how the most popular national parks enjoyed millions of more visitors in 2021 relative to last year, in part thanks to the relaxing of coronavirus restrictions.

Driving the news: Members of Congress are hoping to draw more attention to the issue by hosting a public hearing on Wednesday.

  • Park superintendents and private sector groups will testify before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.
  • The panel's chairman, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said the purpose is to review the impact of the overcrowding on parks and park resources, and to consider strategic approaches to visitor-use management.
  • Many parks are now requiring visitors to reserve their spots online and trying to strategize how to spread crowds to avoid over-congestion in hotspots.

What he's saying: "We're not looking for a snapshot of July 2021," King said. "We're trying to think 10 years ahead. If current trends continue in terms of increased visitation, what does that imply?"

  • "Please help, we are drowning in tourists here," said Dick Broom, a reporter for the Mount Desert Islander, during a call with reporters.
  • Broom has seen the dangers of overcrowding at national parks firsthand, living on the island intertwined with Acadia National Park — one of the most popular parks in the U.S.
  • When Broom asked if King thinks the parks are in "danger of being loved to death," the senator labeled the characterization "appropriate."
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