Reader Participation Day: Is The Current Level Of Visitation To National Parks A Concern?

Should the steps leading to Turret Arch in Arches National Park always be crammed with visitors to indicate a healthy National Park System? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Latest visitation figures show that tourism to the National Park System dipped somewhat in 2010, dropping from 285.5 million in 2009 to 281.3 million last year. Is that a concern?

Some would say that if you spent a summer day in the Yosemite Valley or on the apron of the Old Faithful Geyser or on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon you'd be hard-pressed to say the parks are struggling as a tourism destination.

But others point to that 281.3 million figure and start to worry about the lure of the parks, even though in 2008 the number was 274.8 million.

If you think the 2010 visitation tally of 281.3 million is a concern, why do you think the number slipped, and what do you think can or should be done to increase visitation?


Interesting question. But is it akin to assigning a dollar value to everything?
I'm one of those who believe that the parks are underfunded overall. If funding were sufficient, then I would answer your question by saying that the "fat cats" - Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc. - should be subsidizing some of the smaller, less-visited parks by spreading the revenue around. It's a moot point, however.
I am not one of those who believes that government is inherently a problem - I think almost all of the waste, fraud, and abuse has been eliminated over the years and we now have to think about what we want government to actually do. However, I do think that an occasional review of the park portfolio is warranted. Do all parks need to be parks? Should they have another status? Should a few be decommissioned? I'd like to see the questions asked, even if the result is maintaining the status quo. Visitation levels would be part of that review, but I would hope they would not be the only gauge of value.

AnonymousD, some good questions, indeed. I tend to believe visitation numbers are over-emphasized. The parks, foremost, were set aside for preservation and protection, not to generate a specific number of visits. If we only protect them at a certain level of visitation, well, aren't we missing the point?

That said, without a strong base of support, possibly reflected by visitation, they could lose their voice in Washington, D.C., and could wither on the vine, so to speak.

As for whether all the units of the park system deserve to be there, well, we've debated that question off and one, and it always spurs lots of comments!

"I am not one of those who believes that government is inherently a problem - I think almost all of the waste, fraud, and abuse has been eliminated over the years and we now have to think about what we want government to actually do."

I agree with the latter part of your statement but the first part? It's an insular world we live in or parallel universe more true, I suppose, where we are so enamored (and loving it) with these great places to stay in our happy place. I'm guessing (with proof) that there is more waste in Government than at any time in human history! For me the time I spend encircled by the richness of these wild places gives me perspective to deal with all the craziness that's peddled in politics. Much of it is quite evil when you dig deep and find out who really benefits. Okay, I'm going to my happy place, lol!

I totally agree with the first paragraph of Kurt Repanshek's comment. But I believe that the National Park Service has become an umbrella used by too many statesmen in Washington for putting something in their state under its care. I have gone through the entire list of places and looked at all the websites that fall under NPS and concluded there are many places that should fall off the list. They are not worthy of falling under the NPS umbrella, and certainly not worthy of Federal Tax dollar-care. Other than George Washington, for instance, why do we need almost every President's birthplace and/or dyingplace housekeeped forever on our dollar? I think some of the sites, other than a "true" (to me) National Park, should have an honest-to-God due diligence performed as to why they made the NPS list to begin with, and why they should continue to stay on the list. OK, I rambled off the subject, but visitation numbers to Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, to name a few, should not even come into question. They are grand and majestic works of nature to be treasured forever.

I agree with almost everything said by all the previous posters. But unravelling the great tangle of government that has been allowed to build over the last 250 years or so will take determined effort of the most incredible magnitude.

And that brings the questions -- by whom and how?

Democracy, by its very nature, is a dance of competing interests. For every effort there is opposition. For every possible direction of travel there will be equally appealing alternates.

Is there anyone out there wise enough, determined enough, and powerful enough to do it? And if there are, how do we find them?

As someone who visited numerous national parks this summer and fall, I think visitation will be down for 2011 also. The numbers won't come up until the economy improves and gas prices come down. I found vacancies at the North Rim, Zion and Bryce at the last minute. Other travelers remarked on how empty those parks seemed. Based on my observations, I'd say that Yosemite visitation was about the same; the difference being that Yosemite is relatively close to the Bay Area and therefore visitation is less correlated to the price of gas than Zion, Bryce, etc.
When people feel secure enough to retire and travel, visitation will go up.
When people have secure jobs and are confident to spend money on travel, visitation will go up.
IMO the only way to improve visitation is for the unemployment rate and gas prices to go down.

The National Park Service is truly a conundrum. It strives to protect great natural wonders of our country and encourage tourism which may unintentionally destroy those great natural wonders. One of these has to give.

If preservation is the goal then the numbers mean nothing and we should cap the numbers of visitors. Entrance fees should be raised and there should be prolonged black out dates for the parks.

If making these great places accessible to the public and therefore increasing tourism is the primary goal, then the numbers are too low, and may in fact be overestimated. If one enters and leaves a park multiple times (as we did in Yellowstone this past summer), an individual may be counted multiple times.

To encourage tourism, if that is your goal, we must first teach Americans an appreciation of their country. If you go to the great parks of Utah you will find a large percentage of visitors from outside the US. We need to do a better job of encouraging Americans to enjoy America. In south Florida where I live, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has visited Key Biscayne NP, Everglades NP, or Big Cypress Reserve.

Second we must rebel against the concessionaires at the popular parks who offer little more then a bed for $180/night and a disgusting burger for $10. Many of you will say just camp and bring your own food but sorry to tell you, most Americans don’t camp. Truthfully, is Xanterra benefitting or hurting the NPS. Given my experiences, I would opt for other options.

Third, visitors need an easier way to plan their park trips. Frankly, most individuals just feel overwhelmed trying to plan a trip to what they consider may be the middle of nowhere. I am currently helping three different families plan trips to Glacier, Yellowstone/Rushmore, and Yellowstone/Utah as they all find the internet information overwhelming. If it wasn’t for me, most of these individuals would be going to a Apple Vacation All inclusive in Jamaica!

My personal opinion is that Americans don’t know how beautiful their country is and that the numbers should be higher. The NPS is fat and includes too many sites that need no preserving (Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan come to mind) and if these were cut, the remainder of the NPS could fund better services. Also, certain NPS sites need no additional visitors (Yellowstone, Carlsbad, Grand Canyon….) while others are glorious and people are missing out (Everglades, Big Cypress, Chiricaha, Olympic…) and it is to those sites that the NPS should encourage visitation. While the economy and gas prices may be an issue, remember that an NPS annual pass is still only $80/year and most everyone in the US is less then 2 hours from a cheap vacation.

What you said about the Utah parks is true. A ranger told me that 50% of Bryce Canyon visitors are from France and Germany alone. Europeans love Death Valley in the summer. They have nothing like either place in Europe. But why more Americans don't go is a mystery to me (aside from the economy).

Second we must rebel against the concessionaires at the popular parks who offer little more then a bed for $180/night and a disgusting burger for $10. Many of you will say just camp and bring your own food but sorry to tell you, most Americans don’t camp. Truthfully, is Xanterra benefitting or hurting the NPS. Given my experiences, I would opt for other options.

Xanterra is doing a bangup job compared to Delaware North in Yosemite. I've never stayed in such appalling accommodations in a national park in my life. At Yellowstone, I can stay in a clean, comfortable cabin I can drive my car right up to, with sparkling showers a few yards away, a short walk from Old Faithful itself, for less than $80 a night. In Yosemite Valley, I get a filthy tent cabin a quarter of a mile from where I have to hunt for a parking space in a lot the size of New York, and showers that didn't look like they'd been cleaned since the beginning of the season, for $120 a night.

Delaware North treats Yosemite as a cash cow. I know part of it is that Yosemite Valley is unbelievably overcrowded in the summertime (this was the first time I'd ever been there in the summer -- when I actually lived in California, we always went in the off-season), but part of it is that Delaware North's PTBs just don't care. There's no other explanation that fits.

So far as the original question goes, where the parks were basically shot in the foot was in the beginning, when Congress gave them that expletive-deleted mutually exclusive directive, to preserve the parks and to make them accessible. You can't have it both ways. But I suspect that without that expletive-deleted mutually exclusive directive, the park service would have died a horrible death long ago. There's just no way out of this one.

I agree with everything you said about Curry Village. It is basically an overpriced slum. I stayed there this summer and when I checked in I was told that the NPS was telling Delaware North that there prices were too high. My refund? A couple of dollars. I'm not kidding.
I should have booked in El Portal. It would have cost me more but I would have had clean private showers and a real bed. I wouldn't have heard my neighbor snoring or his baby waking up at 4am. But as long as Curry Village and the other Delaware North properties are always full, the lousy conditions will continue.

The one thing we noticed this year in the parks was the low numbers of American tourists-- the vast majority of visitors appeared to be from other countries. What a shame more American's don't visit the parks. I think the bad economy has a lot to do with it.

For many of the parks that are "overcrowded", the problem is not the number of people, but the number of private cars. Keep the car out of Cades Cove and Yosemite Valley and just watch what will happen. Yes, park visitation might drop somewhat, due to the perceived inconvenience of parking the car outside of the park and entering the park using a public transportation service, as is now the case for Zion Canyon.

With the eleminatinon of the private car, especially from park areas that suffer from "overcrowding," in-park crime will dissapate. Park rangers will be able to spend more time on visitor contact and interpretation than on investigation, search and apprehension of law breakers.

But, I expect that any attempt by the NPS to reduce the number of cars in an "overcrowded" park will meet with fierce opposition, mostly made up of those whose livelihoods depend on profits from industrial toursim. Such opposition essentially forced the NPS to scrap the 1980 General Management Plan for Yosemite, which recommended ultimate removal of the private car from Yosemite Valley.

Yet, the Yosemite Valley experience would be enhanced greatly without th presence of private cars in the valley floor, just as the Zion Canyon experience has been enhanced by successfully replacing private cars with the Zion Canyon/Springdale, UT shuttle service.

Owen-- I agree with you-- being in Yosemite valley in the summer during a weekend is a real nightmare with all the cars!!

Owen, the key to it all is cooperation between those whose businesses depend on the park and the park.

Zion's success came about because the park's management reached out to the community of Springdale and the community reached back. It has been a winner for everyone.

I wonder how many people visited Disneyworld and Disneyland this past year. Have their numbers gone down? Somehow I don't think so. And talk about crowding.

Danny Bernstein