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Does the National Park Service Need a Quota System for Peak Seasons?


Are crowds are some national parks so great that the Park Service needs to establish quotas? Photo of Old Faithful apron in Yellowstone by iemuhs via flickr.

Editor's note: Visit Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, just to name three parks, during the summer high season and you most decidedly won't be alone. Indeed, if you didn't start planning your trip months earlier, you probably won't find a vacant room in the parks. Is this is a problem that the National Park Service needs to address? Is it time to institute a "white market" for park access? Professor Bob Janiskee takes a look at such a proposal.

It’s conceivable that the National Park Service might eventually have to take drastic measures to reduce peak-season crowding in our most popular national parks. Overcrowding and overuse lead to congested roads and trails, excessive air pollution, accelerated erosion, and many other problems that reduce recreational pleasure and damage park resources. Anyone who visits Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone during the peak season knows that crowding can make a park visit stressful and inconvenient.

The Park Service is already using a variety of strategies and tactics to discourage overcrowding and overuse. But urging people to choose less popular parks and less busy times of year doesn’t do much good, and might actually create new crowding problems. At root, nearly all of the methods that actually work are forms of rationing. For many years now the Park Service and concessionaires have been using first-come, first-served (queuing and reservation) systems, lotteries, and price increases to regulate access to parks, campsites, backcountry trails, whitewater rivers, and other park facilities and activities.

There have even been some attempts to ration by merit or competency, as in screening for the issuing of climbing and mountaineering permits. But what if all of these measures are not enough? What if problems related to overcrowding and overuse in certain heavily used parks become overwhelming?

In the worst case scenario, the Park Service might have to adopt truly draconian measures. Some observers believe that it is only a matter of time before we see strict entrance and recreational facility quotas employed. A few have suggested that access to national parks and their recreational facilities might best be regulated by a national lottery, and that a “white market” for park permits should be allowed to flourish.

Here is how it would work. The Park Service would use the best available scientific methods to determine the recreational carrying capacity, acceptable limits of change, and other limiting factors in parks that experience serious overcrowding and related facilities overuse during peak seasons. The key question is how much access and use can be permitted without seriously reducing recreational quality or causing unacceptable damage to physical and cultural resources in the parks.

The agency would then set peak-period quotas for admission and recreational facilities use at the “problem parks.” Each quota would express the maximum number of permits to be issued for visiting a particular park and engaging in specified recreational activities during a specified period of time. The quotas would be partially filled through allocations to tour operators, park concessionaires, various other commercial recreation providers, and presumably some national NGOs. The remaining permits would be allocated to the public via lottery.

The holder of a peak period permit (“winner,” if you prefer) gains the right to pay all applicable fees and enter a particular park on a specified date, spend a specified amount of time there, and use specified facilities or services inside the park.

The “white market” part of the scheme comes into play after peak period permits are distributed by lottery. There would be no such thing as illegal trade (a black market) in national park permits. Instead, permit holders would have the legal right to do whatever they want with them. If you are lucky enough to receive a peak-period permit through the lottery, but you don’t want to use it, you can give it to your best friend, trade it for one you like better, donate it for charity auction, advertise it for sale on eBay, or whatever. In theory, such a system would protect park resources and recreational quality while giving everyone a reasonable opportunity to gain entry to the most popular national parks during peak periods.

There are plenty of drawbacks to this system, of course, and I suspect that few people would prefer it to what we have now.


I hate the idea of the permits, first and foremost. However, they aren't really necessary by the very design of the parks. Take Yellowstone, for example. Yellowstone is one of my favorite parks in the world, but I know if I want to visit it I need to make camping reservations WAY in advance. There are only so many camping spaces and hotel rooms available, hence only so many people can visit. Do I think those campsites and rooms should be done on a lottery: NO WAY!!! First come, first serve. Let it be known when reservations are going to be accepted and then let people reserve.

Do I want to buy a campsite off ebay? Nope. The problem with a lottery is just like the problem with ticket scalping. People- who have NO intention of ever visiting the parks- register for the lotteries at all the parks, use every family members name, and when they become "winners" they put those up on Ebay for 200% markup. A 15$ campsite suddenly becomes 150$ and bad people rake in the money. Let's face it, that is the American way.

However, and I do feel that the park service could and probably should increase their prices, on a first come, first serve basis, people who are truly interested become the 'winners.'

My trust of the NPS's ability to use the "best available scientific methods" as the basis of any decision is non existent.

No, the parks should have the news stations broadcast overbooked conditions often during peak season. The information can steer people to underused parks so they can enjoy their holiday or at least alert them to the overcrowed conditon. I think many would opt to do something else if they knew in advance. This can be done at no cost since the federal government owns the air waves and it is a public service. The internet should be used as well.

Here's an idea. Any lottery should be open only to American citizens whose taxes pay for the parks. Seriously, if American citizens have difficulty getting access to the popular national parks that they pay for while tour operators catering to foreign visitors get preference, how much support will there be for funding for the parks?

Anon has a good point about unfair advantages that internationals might enjoy if they were to book their peak-season park visits through tour operators who get a permit allocations without being subject to the lottery. However, advocates of the lottery system might simply point out that international visitors already enjoy, at very modest prices, the use of national parks that American taxpayers have funded. And millions of Americans who helped to fund the very parks that the internationals are visiting cannot afford to visit the parks themselves. If I were in charge of tweaking the system, I would have the Park Service charge tour operators very hefty fees for their peak-season permit allocations, with modest surcharges imposed on permits used by internationals.

If you wish to use a "scientific method" to determine " much access and use can be permitted without seriously reducing recreational quality or causing unacceptable damage to physical and cultural resources in the parks." It seems that we would need to answer a few questions. First, what do we mean by recreational quality and 2) what is "unacceptable damage." These are fraught with value laden questions that are not necessarily amenable to scientific inquiry.

Perhaps National Parks are not overused but underfunded.

Carrying capacity in range management is about maximizing the productivity of the range, not limiting it. Perhaps we should ask if there are ways that we could increase the capacity of parks in ways that reduce visitor's carbon footprints, promotes the conservation of the natural, cultural, and historic conservation.

There have been lots of suggestions for increasing carrying capacity, but most of them are unacceptable for obvious reasons. For example, some people advocate installing elevated monorail systems in our big nature-based national parks so that more visitors can be conveyed around and through the parks without unduly damaging the resources. This mass transit system would be in addition to, not instead of, traditional hiking, backpacking, and horse packing.

No quotas needed...the parks are doing fine with current visitation. No shuttles or buses either...(the rest of this sentence has been edited out.)

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