Redefining the National Park

Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park. (Jordan Gorostiza)

The last time I drove out of Yosemite National Park, I had one thing on my mind. It was not one of the many cascading waterfalls. It was not the preternaturally smooth walls of granite that enclose the valley floor. Nor was it the sugar pine forests that served as a great refuge during the midday heat. All of these things certainly left a lasting impression on me. However, what I came away focused on after this particular trip was something far more banal: the crowds.

Early that morning, when a friend and I had arrived, there were only a couple of other early risers making their way into the park— mostly climbers, backcountry hikers, and photographers. The deeper we got into the valley, the quieter it seemed to get. Parking was aplenty and the only audible noise was that of the Merced River barreling westward beside us. So, we took advantage of this solitude and parked along one of the many small lots that line the river. We crossed over a nearby foot bridge and traced the edge of the little valley on the other side to catch a glimpse of Yosemite Falls. We were gone for maybe fifteen minutes.

By the time we returned to our car, the lot was full and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic along the two-lane eastbound road that eventually loops around the entirety of the valley. I was surprised at the speed by which all of these people had poured into the park, but not that they had poured in. In California, and I’m sure in many other western states, this is the new normal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a state or federal park on a Saturday after 8 A.M. that wasn’t already packed to capacity. On that trip home, I kept asking myself if I was being melodramatic or if the park really had been more crowded than I had previously remembered it to be.

As it turns out, it was probably a little of both. According to data released by the National Park Service, the agency responsible for the stewardship of much of the federally protected parks and monuments in the United States, roughly 3.8 million people visited Yosemite National Park in 2013 alone. By 2016, that number grew to 5.2 million. That’s a nearly 36% increase in the span of only three years. Break down the numbers from 2016, and you’re looking at an average of about 14,000 visitors per day; a large portion of which come to the park during its peak season (May through September). So, that number may be higher during those months and lower in the park’s colder months. Nevertheless, Yosemite Valley — where the majority of visitors head — is only 7.5 miles long with an average width of about a mile. You can imagine the congestion. And this is not an isolated occurrence: the entire National Park system is experiencing a gradual, yet significant, increase in visitors with Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks welcoming even more than Yosemite.

In another context, I imagine that these numbers would be something to celebrate. One of the core purposes for establishing our national parks was to allow our citizenry the ability to come and appreciate them, ideally leaving better educated on the natural resources of our country and inspired to contribute in the stewardship and preservation of those resources. But, as with everything else in life, moderation is key here. The phrase “loved to death” has been used a number of times by park officials to explain what they believe is happening.

Although the parks do need visitors to survive (entrance fees and donations help ease the financial hardship of an incredibly backlogged maintenance budget), there is a point where the crowds begin to do more harm than good. Noise pollution, increased litter, and the degradation of facilities (such as restrooms and lodging) are some of the more obvious issues. But the effect that park-goers have on the environment around them might be harder to see. An increase in off-trail wandering (due to packed trails or patrons who do not know, or perhaps care, about trail etiquette) has destroyed sensitive flora. Human-wildlife interactions have habituated and conditioned wildlife such as bears and deer, paving the way for potentially dangerous encounters. The list goes on and the notion that these large crowds are more than just an inconvenience — that they cause real, observable damage — is glaring.

Many parks have begun to try and mediate these effects by implementing various operating changes: Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco, recently began requiring reservations; Zion National Park, among a handful of other parks, considered substantially raising entrance fees; and Yosemite has long had a lottery limiting the amount of people allowed to hike Half Dome. Although these changes seem to be well-intentioned, many people argue that parks should not limit access to the citizens to whom they belong. Others argue that some of these policies would disproportionately lock out traditionally underserved groups of people who may not be able to afford steep entrance fees.

As I was trying to understand the long-term effects of these proposed solutions, a few foundational questions kept looming in the back of my mind: 1) Why are so many more people beginning to visit public lands and 2) What, exactly, is the role of the National Park?

Although comprehensive research has yet to surface, many argue that one of the driving forces behind the increased flow of people into national parks is social media. Of the many content niches to flourish on social platforms, such as Instagram, outdoor adventure and recreation has been consistently situated among the most popular. Prominent creators, whose posts can be seen by thousands, and in some cases millions, of followers, have become powerful influencers and when they post about a place or trend they can tangibly increase interest. A built-in feature on many platforms called “geotagging” allows for users to pinpoint exactly where in the world their photo was taken. Now, imagine one of these influencers travels to a lesser known park and posts about it; potentially millions more people now know it exists and may be inspired to travel there. And this is just one person with a large following; think about all of the other users who may be posting about their outdoor excursions at sites across the country as well.

There is also the simple fact that more people are engaging in outdoor recreation. Specifically, interest in the outdoors has increased drastically with millennials. Whether this is a byproduct of the increase in media content that focuses on the outdoor and adventure lifestyles is still a largely unanswered question. However, this enthusiasm might help explain why the parks are becoming so impacted now, as millennials, now young adults, are the largest generation in America today. Might it also reflect a counter reaction to an increasingly technological society — a primal need to reestablish a meaningful relationship with nature?

I was likewise trying to understand the role that our national parks play in our society. This is important because in order to understand how to efficiently manage our public lands, we must first have a foundational understanding of what they are. Once we have the ability to grasp this, we can make decisions that help support and uphold their purpose.

The mission statement of the National Park Service states that it will, to the best of its ability, “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

John Muir, an early and integral advocate for the park system, echoed this sentiment, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” These two statements make clear, then, that from the start, recreation has played a strong role in the creation of our national parks. This leaves me conflicted, however. There is also the emphasis on “preserve unimpaired”— how is “unimpaired” defined? Are roads an impairment? On-site hotels (and, yes, now corporations)? Paved trails? And which takes priority: recreation or preservation?

In many ways, these questions get to the heart of what I have been trying to understand. I have always thought of “true” wilderness as the absence of human intervention. Places where all that is visible to the eye, and all that is not, has been created by natural forces and natural forces alone. But maybe I have been wrong.

Wild is defined as “living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated.” Under this definition, arguments can be made that our parks are wild just as arguments can be made that they have, indeed, been impaired. For example, much of Yosemite is as it was hundreds of years ago, however other parts contain the distinctly 21st-century mark of man. Is the concept of wilderness, then, subjective?

Not too long after my trip I was scrolling through Instagram when I stumbled upon a post by ecologist/storyteller Charles Post that addressed this very idea. Ruminating on the role of social media in discussions surrounding conservation, he posed a few questions that caught my attention:

“Is wilderness an idea, a human construct, or is it something that still exists in a pure form? Is Yosemite still wild? If so, how can we use Instagram to help steward it? If not, perhaps its accessibility to millions of visitors will help save those truly wild places? Maybe we should think of [Yosemite] as an ambassador of wilderness? A wild sacrifice so that future generations may fall in love with nature and therefore might choose to speak out for those wild corners in far away places devoid of visitor centers and cement trails but very much in the crosshairs of climate change, oil and gas, mining, and dams?”

So, a “wild sacrifice,” then? Although he left the questions open-ended, his line of thought made sense to me; preserve these larger natural spaces as best as we can but ultimately focus on the goal of getting people to care about the creek behind their house or the coastal marsh up the highway. Of course, this interpretation doesn’t reinvent the wheel; it accomplishes what the parks have sought to do from the beginning — it just reckons with the fact that maybe the Yosemites and the Yellowstones might not be the solemn, backcountry wildernesses that some still expect them to be. That maybe a redefining is in order: not of the parks themselves but of our idea of what they should be.

This perspective, admittedly, does not help solve the current strain on the parks (nor does it mean that strain should be ignored), but it does introduce to the conversation the notion that there are many smaller ecosystems that play an equally important role in nature as any large park. Ecosystems that may be far more vulnerable to existential threats than popular — but protected — national parks. And so we are left to decide for ourselves whether or not we think this trade-off is just.

At this point, it has become clear to me that there are no easy answers here. The management of our public lands has always been and probably always will be complex. But if there is one thing that I know it is this: human minds are often incredibly hard to change. We get stuck in our own ways of thinking because we are always subconsciously searching for patterns; it’s why we form routines and habits. But I have also seen how one glimpse of the view from a place like Glacier Point can be enough to inspire that change.

At a time when natural (or wild or whatever you want to call them) spaces are being developed and destroyed at an alarming rate, we need as many ways as possible to influence people to care about the long-term stewardship of our lands. Seen through this lens, sitting through traffic or learning to be a little more patient on trails seem like small components in service of a larger purpose. Much like the parks themselves.

Writer and science communicator living along the Colorado front range. Contact:

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