Cyclists ride Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on June 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As Crowds Overwhelm National Parks, Lawmakers Seek Solutions

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, ranking GOP member on the Subcommittee on National Parks, said challenges surrounding visitor-use management deserve immediate attention

By Tristan Scott

The unmatched summer strain overwhelming gateway communities like those girding Glacier National Park received prominent attention last week as members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee plied land managers and local stakeholders in an effort to craft long-term solutions.

“There are no obvious answers to some of these challenges, and there is no one single solution that will fit all the situations in our parks,” U.S. Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, explained in his opening comments on July 28, when he opened the hearing to address visitor-use management and overcrowding in popular National Park Service (NPS) units. “I know there is a path forward that we can build by collaboration and input from the local level, and it’s my hope that our conversation today is a step in that direction.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, serves as the subcommittee’s ranking GOP member, and described the challenges that have beset not only Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, but gateway communities like Whitefish and Columbia Falls, Livingston and Gardner, which, although they remain dependent on the draw of tourism, have become overwhelmed as visitors converge in record numbers.

“The economic impact is a good thing,” Daines said. “And while there are challenges, we need to look also at the benefit of increased visitation. We need to make sure we aren’t closing off our parks to the world.”

“The tension and the paradox is that we want visitation to our national parks,” King added, “but we don’t want the visitation to impair the resource.”

Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, provided remote testimony to the subcommittee, relaying sentiments he said are widely shared by park gateway communities across the country.

“If anything, business is a little bit too good right now,” said Gartland, outlining an outdoor-amenity craze afflicting small gateway communities across the West. “There aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs available, so business owners are leaving some money on the table this summer. ‘Limited operations’ really are the catchwords of the day. Almost everybody in the hospitality industry, as well as those outside of the industry, are struggling to find employees. They’re running at about 75 percent of capacity and that’s anything from mom-and-pop restaurants to hotels, lodges, you name it.”

“It’s safe to say 2021 will be the busiest year ever for tourism in our region,” Gartland continued. “And the busiest ever for Glacier National Park as well. But that of course is nothing new. Visitation to Glacier has been setting all-time records for most of the 10 years that I’ve been here in town. In the world of business, that’s a pretty good thing. Simply gear up production to meet the demand you’ve got out there and everybody is happy. Unfortunately, in managing natural resources, in this case a national park, it’s not just the law of supply and demand that applies. There’s also a myriad other issues to consider, including visitor experience, the carrying capacity of the land itself. We are loving our park to death.”

In 2019, the last year on record before the pandemic upended the National Park System, overall visitation to its units was nearly 20% greater than what it was in 2013. In 2019, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the NPS staff size shrunk nearly 14% compared to just a decade earlier.

“The decline in staffing capacity and park funding over the last 10 years give us a sobering view of the ability of NPS to successfully respond to these rapidly evolving visitor use patterns,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), said in her testimony. “There is no reason to believe increased visitation will let up anytime soon, especially as Americans and international visitors seem more eager than ever to recreate outdoors.”

Nationwide, NPS units received a total of 327.5 million recreation visits in 2019, an increase of more than 9 million, or 2.9 percent, from the previous year — a staggering figure that nearly equals the entire U.S. population. The overall 2020 visitation numbers reflect the effects of temporary park closures and restrictions implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but — critically, Brengel said — many parks continued to experience surges in visitation when parks reopened at the end of the summer into the fall.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore had a 41 percent increase in visits from July to October. Yellowstone hit a record high in October and Zion documented seven consecutive months of record visitation starting in September, again during a time of almost non-existent international travel.

“Many superintendents are already in the midst of yet another season of exploding visitation with many of the same staffing limitations as 2020,” she said.

While NPS released the “Plan like a Ranger” campaign earlier this year that will help educate visitors on ways to reduce some of the tensions that come with such high visitation, many parks this summer, including Glacier National Park, continue to encounter a visitor base that remains unaware of the hurdles they will face when accessing a popular park.

At Glacier, that lack of awareness is compounded by this summer’s ticketed-entry system implemented at both entrances to the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. Although the park’s top administrators spent months “socializing” the system with local stakeholders and community leaders, Gartland said the majority of out-of-market visitors were caught off guard.

“Many of our visitors have traveled thousands of miles, they’ve made tens of thousands of dollars in hotel and airfare and rental car reservations, only to see their vacation ruined because they can’t get that $2 ticket to see Glacier National Park,” Gartland said.  “One local business owner put it to me like this: she feels more like a therapist than a marketing director. She’s really trying to help people work through that issue, and it’s really become a big deal.”

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