Recently, Yellowstone has been the spotlight of many trending headline: the woman petting the bison on opening day, the foreign tourists putting a bison calf in their vehicle because it looked cold, the group of four Canadians walking out on Grand Prismatic Spring, and, even today, a trending headline about an elk charging a woman taking a photo of it. While these headlines can be equal parts amusing and infuriating, they perfectly illustrate the challenges facing our public lands and, in particular, our national parks as they enter the next century.
Last year, the parks faced record visitation as over 307 million people visited national parks across the country. The crowds only continue to grow. Last year, Yosemite was the fourth most visited national park in the country and as of April 2016, the park had already experienced 40% more visitation than it had for the same months in 2015. Just try to enter a national park on a holiday weekend and you will get a sense as to exactly what these numbers represent. To get into Yosemite on Memorial Weekend this year, visitors had to wait about three hours in line at the entrance station. Once people got into the park, there was nowhere for them to go, as all the parking was full and traffic was at a complete standstill. The crowds are only getting worse and the parks are running out of places to put them.
With as much visitation as the parks get, there are bound to be people among them who don’t know how to act while in the outdoors. And that’s okay. People come to the parks to experience something different than their every day. Most people don’t see elk, hot springs, bison, roaring waterfalls, geysers, grizzly bears, or any other of the wide variety of wonders the parks have to offer, on a daily basis. A person who lives in New York City is not inherently going to know the dangers that the docile looking bison represent. It would be unfair of us to expect that from them. However, it’s the parks job to educate the visitors about exactly what they are seeing and how to act while in a national park. What these recent trending headlines suggest is that, despite the Park Service’s very best efforts, we are failing to do so.
Within figuring out exactly how to accommodate the ever-growing crowds who are descending on our public lands, another great challenge lies before us. How can we effectively communicate nature –with all of its dangers, fragilities, and wonders- to an ever-growing population that is increasingly uninformed and uneducated about these things? No one wants to see a national park littered in signs and fences or have their access to said park limited. However, it seems as if we are running out of options and, before you know it, that might be all that is left. While this might be good news as job security to those who hope for a future in forestry, it spells bad news for the park’s resources and visitors. We can only go so long at the current pace before people lose their lives and park resources are permanently damaged.