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.

Comments

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 "...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." 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.)

Quotas and lotteries are too cumbersome. Presumably all the people crowing the parks have already found a campsite or accommodations somewhere. The number of visitors is already "set" by the number of accommodations available.

Having been a manager in several national park sites in administration, budgeting and strategic planning, I can assure you that the big parks are NOT underfunded. My last stint was with Yosemite and they have so much money that they cannot perform the necessary EIS planning to spend it - leaving tens of millions on the table every year.

Recreation Fee monies are quickly becoming a bane to the big parks. There's only so much money you can spend, only so many development / redevelopment projects to undertake, only so many employees to rationalize the spending through planning efforts.

In any case, you cannot spend your way out of a finite resource (or damage created by recreational overuse).

Rationing is the future.

One of the primary functions of the National Park Service is visitor use management. We have 391 park units collecting data 391 different ways. Until we can get an accurate description of who, what, when and why our visitors are visiting it makes it a mute point to discuss long term solutions. Far to often we fail in our visitor use management strategies with short lived solutions that lead to significant operational problems that have significant impacts on the heros that greet our visitors each and every day. Having completed multiple traffic control shifts at the Lower Yosemite Falls intersection that required me to ice my elbow at night well over 10 years ago, it makes me sad when I see a park service employee doing the same thing. What about a traffic light? What about a pedestrian bridge? All way to controversial in a Crown Jewel. Get your traffic vest, water bottle and whistle.

I agree with Marylander, the lottery system would not get rid of the scalpers, in fact I think it would make it worse. The problem lies directly in the National Park Service itself. I tried to have this addressed before. I was told there is nothing they can do about it. I figured a way they can at least curve it a little. Investigate their own employees in the reservation system itself, this is where it is starting. This year on Feb. 15 at 8am pacific time, take all the reservations made at 7am for the dates in July at Yosemite National Park. These reservations will show a whole family of people, cousins, parents, brothers and sisters, wifes and husbands all of the same family, it adds up to a lot sites. Then go and see who put all these reservations in under just that family. My bet is none of those sites even made it to the reservation board. My guess is that you would find your employee of illegal activity. Shut that scalping ring down and then you might get some "winners."

Anonymous:
I agree with Marylander, the lottery system would not get rid of the scalpers, in fact I think it would make it worse. The problem lies directly in the National Park Service itself. I tried to have this addressed before. I was told there is nothing they can do about it. I figured a way they can at least curve it a little. Investigate their own employees in the reservation system itself, this is where it is starting. This year on Feb. 15 at 8am pacific time, take all the reservations made at 7am for the dates in July at Yosemite National Park. These reservations will show a whole family of people, cousins, parents, brothers and sisters, wifes and husbands all of the same family, it adds up to a lot sites. Then go and see who put all these reservations in under just that family. My bet is none of those sites even made it to the reservation board. My guess is that you would find your employee of illegal activity. Shut that scalping ring down and then you might get some "winners."

The claim has been made that the NRRS doesn't give preferential treatment to anyone. The problem at Yosemite is just the sheer number of requests and the limited number of campsites. I've camped in Yosemite before, and I frankly I haven't seen massive blocks of campsites taken over by one large group. About the most I've seen would be two campsites taken over by the same group. If anyone really wants a large group, there are group campsites in Yosemite.

As for the discussions about eBay or other resale - I'd note that it is illegal. eBay doesn't allow resale of any travel services (including lodging) except for certified sellers participating in Square Trade verification. They claim it's too difficult to verify that reservations are valid unless sellers are certified. I've seen listings to transfer Yosemite campground reservations on eBay which I believe were taken down for violations of eBay policy. It's also illegal to resell NRRS reservations at any price - I suppose even at cost isn't legal.

http://www.recreation.gov/marketing.do?goto=/faq/faq-onsalereservations.html

Here's my favorite Q&A:

Q. Can I advance the clock time on my computer to get access before the sale begins?
A. Changing the time and date of your computer does NOT affect the sale start time. The Reservation System clock controls the precise date and time-of-day that reservations become book-able.

I remember discussing this on a Yosemite message board. Someone had a proposed follow-up being if one could reset their computer clock backwards if they got shut out, and try again.

Something must be done to curb the overuse of our parks and wilderness areas. The national park services only concern is how much money they make. I have been trying for the past year to come up with an way to ease the use of such parks as yellowstone and glacier. However theres no real fair way to do it. However its either do something or lose these places forever.

While I don't buy for a moment that these places will be lost forever due to overcrowding during peak usage, certainly the magic is significantly reduced (the all-afternoon traffic jams on summer weekends in Yosemite are a definite kill-joy). I also can't imagine that anyone (it's a political decision in the end) will ever do anything that could really help since there would be an instant landslide of outrage from all those visitors that didn't get in when they wanted to or that have a lower definition of "magic" and were never bothered by the traffic in the first place.

Of course the article was more about a lottery system which, if you ask me and if not I'll tell you anyway, is ludicrous. As has already been said, it will only result in people signing up for the lottery with the sole intention of reselling the reservations and that could, in turn, lead to higher prices for those not in the business of being reservation resellers. Imagine if they auctioned them off, then some of these parks will become out of reach to those with smaller vacation kitties unless they enjoy camping in January (not that there's anything wrong with camping in January, if that's what trips your insane trigger). Can't imagine how a lottery would be more fair than the current system.

As an aside, the current system works well enough, from my experience. If you've got a couple of browser windows open with different sites already picked out and ready to go at exactly 7AM Pacific time, you stand a fair chance of getting one of your selected sites. Out of two July 4th, one Memorial Day, and one Labor Day weekend campground reservation attempts, I've gotten a site half the time. You could probably do even better (maybe 100% success) if you pre-picked less desirable campsites (but don't pick a site right next to a dumpster unless you enjoy the sound of breaking glass at 10PM), which are already on the pre-select list of many, many of your competitors.

Let's see, here at CHNSRA the NPS has taken 73 miles and reduced the amount available to the primary form of recreation to 12 miles during peak season. As the reduction has multiplied the 2.7 million visitor total has decreased to 2.2 million with around 1.1 million of those visitors allocated to the summer months.

So what is the cause of over crowding? It's not recreational use but rather the constantly shinking amount of resource provided for recreation. Why not just turn all the parks into primitive wilderness areas with only one type of recreation allowed--that which very few either can or want to engage in.

Any question as to what the position of the Sierra Club and the likes would be? Perfect group for satire! Could they take the heat,LOL?