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Traveler's View: America's Outdoor Recreation Act Of 2022 Needs Help


Greater access to public lands is welcome, but it should be accompanied by greater protections for those lands and their natural resources/NPS file photo of 2021 Grand Teton National Park crowd at Jenny Lake.

Recreational interests were understandably thrilled when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sent to the Senate floor America's Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022, but there are flaws with the measure that heighten risks to federal lands and the flora and fauna that depend on them.

The measure, which was unanimously voted out of committee earlier this month, seeks to "improve and expand America’s outdoor recreation economy while delivering sustainable economic boosts to rural communities." But in striving to achieve that outcome, the legislation fails to provide any specific protections for today's overrun public lands or the wildlife and vegetation that rely those lands.

Anyone who enjoys the National Park System knows there are parks that are being greatly impacted by crowding.

  • Rocky Mountain National Park has experienced a 44 percent increase in visitation since 2012. Rapid growth in day-use visitation and changing use patterns in the park have degraded natural and cultural resources, diminished quality of the visitor experience, increased visitor and staff safety concerns, and created a heavy strain on the park's facilities and ability to perform daily operations. For now, reservations are needed until efforts to protect park resources and the national park experience produce a sound management plan.
  • National Park Service Director Chuck Sams has been asked to provide the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks with a briefing on the problems with heavy visitation in some corners of the National Park System. "With the number of visitors dramatically increasing over the last ten years at top destination park units, it is important that we are made aware of the impacts, both positive and negative, so the committee can better address the situation," wrote Sens. Angus King, a Maine Independent, and Steve Daines, a Montana Republican in their request to Sams.
  • Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming saw nearly 5 million visitors last year, while Acadia National Park eclipsed 4 million visitors for the first time. At Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, tickets are needed to hike to Old Rag this year in an attempt to reduce crowding.
  • Glacier National Park officials in Monanta last year tried to balance crowds and protecting natural resources by resorting to a ticketing system for visitors interested in driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road; that system is returning this year.
  • Arches National Park in Utah has instituted a reservation system for visitors, and cross-state Zion National Park is requiring reservations for those who want to stand atop Angels Landing.
  • The list of record-breaking parks in terms of 2021 visitation includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia, and Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Zion National Park surpassed 5 million for the first time.

The strain is exacerbating the Park Service's deferred maintenance backlog, which carries a brand new price tag of $21.8 billion.

While the legislation does direct federal land managers to "assess ... the impacts of current and projected future recreation use on natural, cultural, and other resources," the senators don't call for land managers to prevent impacts. When it comes to wildlife, the legislation merely calls on land managers to "consider" ways to minimize any impacts.

And the senators have completely ignored the crowding pressures on the National Park System. Instead, the goal of this legislation is for federal land managers to focus on  "developing, expanding, or enhancing the recreation resource."

“Our bipartisan legislation is a monumental achievement for all who enjoy our public lands and shared natural resources," said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who is the ranking member on the committee. "It will increase access to the outdoors, streamline and simplify agency processes, and improve America’s recreation infrastructure."

But it also ignores past directives by Congress for the National Park Service to identify carrying capacities for their parks, something very few have done. For those old enough to remember, it was the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 that told park superintendents to identify in their park's general management plans "visitor carrying capacities for all areas of the unit."

Where are those plans?

Back in May 2010 the late Michael Frome, a journalistic giant in environmental circles who lamented the over-development of national park landscapes and who was among the best at tracking the country's environmental evolution, told me, "Twenty years or so ago, they were talking about carrying capacity. 'Let’s determine the carrying capacity of the park.' Now, they’re talking about, 'Let’s get more people in, so we can get more money.' The carrying capacity is out the window, so, I would say the condition of our parks has definitely gotten worse."

Have things gotten better since 2010?

As we noted two years ago, more visitors mean more business and tax revenues, certainly, but visitors are overrunning more than a few parks, where natural and staff resources are being overtaxed and adversely impacted. 

Varied and plentiful recreational opportunities are a boon to the country, but they must be provided carefully.

If the senators truly want to produce the "first comprehensive recreation package since 1963 that will improve and expand America’s outdoor recreation economy while delivering sustainable economic boosts to rural communities," they need to include specific provisions to protect federal lands and waters, their wildlife, and their federal caretakers, from the desired increase in recreation.

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About 60 parks count for 75% of the total park service visitation.  So, what is the rest of the system to do while it languishes into obscurity?


I have no issue with the crowding.  Its a free republic and if you dont like the crowds then well... Go somewhere else.  My proposal for a solution to such an issue?  Higher prices for foreign visators.  We are one of the only country that has a flat rate for visiting such recreational sites.  

And if you are really concerned about overcrowding in the US than you should be upset that the entire population of the state of Wyoming is illegally crossing our border every four to six months....

More parking?  Broadband???   

What they should do is subsidize park-and-ride visitor buses from lots away from the attraction, while allowing on-property parking for handicapped drivers only.  Our crowded resources shouldn't be granted easier access for the lazy and unmotivated.

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