Senior Thesis

The Impact Tourism and Development Have Had on America’s National Parks and a Consideration of Measures Needed to Keep the Parks Sustainable


John Muir once advised Americans to “Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean” (qtd. in Wood).  Coincidentally, this was written nearly a year before the founding of the National Park Service in 1916 whose purpose was to provide a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (“The Critical Documents”).  For the past 100 years, these parks have provided millions of Americans and foreign tourists with the ideal location for a family getaway, and now, I can’t seem to go more than a month without my own meditative visit to a national park.  But times are changing, and these parks, whose beauty is world renowned, are at risk of being “loved to death” by the people who agreed to care for them.

Last summer I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, supposedly the greatest of all American parks, and, just before entering the park, I was distraught at the powerful sight of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a so-called “gateway town” filled with flashy souvenir stores, probably five separate putt-putt courses, and an ocean of hundreds of families.  To call it a tourist trap would be an understatement.  I had that experience probably a week after deciding my thesis would be on the impact of development and tourism in American national parks, and seeing what lurked outside of Great Smoky Mountains-and several other iconic parks-made me realize that tourism is truly an epidemic for these locales of awe and needs to be controlled.  That wasn’t the first time I witnessed firsthand the impact tourists have on a park.  On a road trip to California, I saw the crowded trails of Yosemite, the traffic spreading through Zion like a poison, and the bus filled parking lots of Death Valley.  The disease is everywhere, and John Muir would turn over in his grave if he saw the states of these places where man was supposed to come to get away from the hustle and bustle of crowded life.  It is with these symptoms of tourism and development in mind, that I am evaluating what should be done both inside and outside the park boundaries to mitigate this impact before our national treasures are gone forever.


What would America be like without the towering crevasses of Zion, the sublime cliffs of Yosemite, or the vast peaks of Shenandoah?  Surely millions of families would lose their prized summer vacation spots, wayfarers would miss out on soul-searching experiences, and researchers would have to find other exotic locations to learn about earth’s history.  This dystopian reality may not be too far from the future with the tourism industry rapidly growing and visitors finding more ways to degrade the state of America’s treasures.  All over the country, these natural wonders have seen human-introduced invasive species, anthropogenic pollution, vandalism, and destruction of habitat, among other things.  The National Park Service is approaching the point where it needs to start looking objectively at the state of its parks and areas it can improve upon to accommodate the sheer number of tourists visiting every year.  Built with the purpose of preserving America’s most beautiful natural landmarks, the National Park Service has allowed tourism and development to proliferate which many believe diminishes the quality of the environment and affects the wildlife that live therein, necessitating a change in sustainable management practices.

Part One: A Short History of the National Park Service

Before looking at the current state of America’s national parks, one must consider the history of the National Park Service and what policies have led to today’s issues.  The origins of the NPS can be traced back to the Yosemite Valley and John Muir (1838-1914), considered by many to be the “Father of our National Park System.”  A Scottish immigrant, Muir moved to the United States at eleven and later found a love for the American wilderness, particularly the Sierra Nevadas and Yosemite.  He often wrote on the beauty inherent to the valley and how nature needed preservation, as it was highly important to the human soul.  Thanks to his popularity at the time, Muir’s writings brought the awe-inspiring scenery of Yosemite to those who would not have normally been able to see it and influenced several notable figures.  One such reader was Abraham Lincoln who recognized the need to protect America’s natural wonders and placed the Yosemite Valley under the special care of California during the Civil War (“National Parks in the Beginning”).

Fast forward to after the war, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of March 1, 1872, formally establishing Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.  According to the Act, Yellowstone was founded “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  While this description makes it seem as though recreation and pleasure are the main reasons the park was erected, the document goes on to explain that the regulations imposed on the park “shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition” (“The Critical Documents”).

Unexpectedly, Teddy Roosevelt was one of the biggest advocates for the preservation of the American wilderness.  An admirer of John Muir, President Roosevelt felt a strong connection with the Sierra Club founder and agreed to visit him and his cabin in Yosemite in 1903.  Muir knew that he could persuade the president to take his side, and after spending several nights in the solitude of the Yosemite wilds, he made his point to the presidential outdoorsman.

Muir argued that the “California State Grant of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove” be put under federal protection and made part of Yosemite National Park, and in 1906 Roosevelt signed the Yosemite Recession Bill, turning these two landmarks over to federal control.  The president went on to form five national parks, eighteen national monuments, and nearly 100 million acres of national forests under his eight year administration (“Theodore Roosevelt”).  Despite all of the progress made towards solidifying Yosemite’s permanent protection, however, Muir met his greatest challenge in the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

In 1912, the valley was set to be dammed to provide water to San Francisco.  One of the major advocates for its damming was a utilitarian forester by the name of Gifford Pinchot who believed resources from national parks and forests should be utilized to support the greater good.  Pinchot’s own resources and utilitarian influence proved too much for Muir’s as the dam was officially constructed in 1913 (“National Parks in the Beginning”).  Fittingly, Muir seemed to die when the protection of Yosemite died, for he fell ill and passed away only a year later.

Part of the reason Pinchot was able to dam and take resources from a protected area was because there really wasn’t any dedicated federal management in place at that time to care for Yosemite or any of the other national parks.  This lack of structure led to a wealthy industrialist named Stephen Mather pushing for the creation of a dedicated national park service.  On August 25, 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) was born with Mather at its head as its first director, kicking off a century of conservation as well as a lucrative new addition to the tourism industry (“National Parks in the Beginning”).

The 1920s’ tourism boom from the mass production of the automobiles allowed Americans to travel all over the United States and visit the country’s newly created national parks.  This influx of visitors boosted the reputation of the National Park Service and spread the word that there was an organization committed to providing a natural experience without compromising conservation.  Despite all the progress made, business was slowed down from both the Great Depression and World War II with most people not able to afford a cross country trip.

After the end of the war, the industry began to grow again with an increasing number of tourists traveling every year to see the country’s wonders.  But growth in tourist admittance and the growth of ecotourism meant a higher demand on accommodations, causing nature to be “manipulated” to suit the needs of the organization’s growth.  Such exploitations have included stocking fish in Sequoia and Glacier National Parks and breaking down ecosystems to create park facilities (Wylie).

It wasn’t only the park service that began taking advantage of the protected ecosystems.  Due to still loose enforcement of regulations, ranchers “took advantage of the remoteness of some park lands” to graze their domestic livestock and, in turn, trampled and degraded much of the local vegetation (“Preserving Nature”).  These activities were cut down by the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which served to protect designated wilderness from development.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  While most of the area in national parks today is designated as “backcountry,” there is still some wilderness in the park where nature is untouched and most park visitors will never see.  Since the passing of this act, nearly 106 million acres of federal land have been recognized as wilderness (“1964 Wilderness Act”).

As guardians of conservation, park sponsors and supporters took interest in preservation of wildlife.  Several sporting organizations “began promoting Yellowstone as a refuge wherein bison and other large mammals should be protected” (“Preserving Nature”).  These conservation-focused priorities didn’t last, however, because over time the park service became more lenient in letting visitors disrupt local habitats.

Part Two: The Issues Facing National Parks Today

One of the most destructive issues in many parks today is the introduction of invasive species, which threaten native species by aggressively moving into their habitat and outcompeting with them for food and resources.  A study conducted by British and Swedish researchers concluded that “the abundance and richness of non-native species are significantly higher in sites where recreational activities took place than in control sites” (Anderson, et al.).  This is due to seeds being carried in by visitors’ socks, shoes, and tires as well as the mud-caked tires of construction vehicles.  Construction activities also break up soil in recreational areas, making them more susceptible to future invasions. Since invasive species have no natural predators to control their population, human intervention is often required to mitigate their impact (“Invasive Plants”).

Invasives in national parks are often treated with several different methods that affect the soil as well as native plants.  In Yosemite National Park, the yellow star-thistle, Centaurea solstitialis, has become very prominent and outpaced most control efforts, prompting the aggressive use of herbicides and brush cutters in attempt to catch up with the rapidly spreading plant.  The side effects of these methods include soil degradation from the herbicides and “significant collateral damage to non-target vegetation” from the brush cutting (“Treatment of Invasive Plants”).  Of course, these treatment methods lead to unintentional alteration of habitat and create whole new issues for parks to deal with.

Over the past few decades, more and more national parks have also become endangered by the booming fracking industry.  This practice involves injecting highly-pressurized water into rocks to extract hard-to-reach oil and natural gas reserves and has become a very prominent practice where drilling isn’t effective.  Areas threatened by fracking are subject to air and water pollution from the methane released in the process as well as noise pollution and have even been linked to earthquakes in some instances (“Safe from Fracking”).

In the Bakken Region of North Dakota, specifically Theodore Roosevelt National Park, fracking has led to a development boom in the area around the park.  In fact, several parts of the park border are within sight of fracking operations.  While fracking has brought millions of jobs to North Dakota, providing it with the highest employment rate of any state, this development has increased traffic surrounding the park, along with noise and light pollution, nearly ruining the seclusion that was signature to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (“Bakken Oil Boom”). These aesthetic pollutants aren’t the only inhibitors of a great park experience and the flourish of habitats.

Air pollution has nearly ruined the clear skies that define many national parks.  Nowadays, many parks are surrounded by a “fog” caused by anthropogenic pollution from upwind factories, cars, and cities.  Such has occurred in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the sheer number of visitors each year has put a strain on the air quality; according to the NPS, “Average visibility in the southern Appalachians has decreased 40% in winter and 80% in summer” since 1948.  The mass development around the park has greatly contributed to these numbers, as have the trends of high and low seasons for park visitations.  The effects on air quality have affected not only the aesthetic of the park but also the environment.

Air pollution has additionally become a major issue leading to acid rain and nitrogen overload for local flora and fauna in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Rain in the higher elevation areas of the park can be as acidic as 2.0 pH. Such acidity diminishes stream quality and contaminates soil, hindering fish life and plant growth.  Nitrogen over-saturation has reached all-time highs, limiting nutrients, such as calcium, to many plants, and approaching “the public health standard for drinking water” (“Air Quality”).  Two other parks receiving the butt-end of air pollution are Rocky Mountain National Park and Yosemite National Park, the former having seen a major increase in the amount of nitrogen in its streams and soils coming from industrial emissions, fertilizers, and car fumes (Blett), and the latter having become “hidden in smog” from urban development, car exhaust, and agricultural waste (“People, Cars”).  Several of these factors have exacerbated the water quality in many parks and put wildlife at risk of chemical poisoning.

Development has diminished water quality in parks all over the United States and created many ecosystems lacking water suitable for the inhabitants therein.  For example, logging, such as the operations on the border of Redwood National Park, has resulted in emissions making their way into parks and debris disturbing water pH, ammonia, and clarity.  Moreover, loosened soil from construction may make its way into streams and river, worsening visibility and affecting chemical balances.  Furthermore, tourists swimming in water sources (streams, rivers, lakes, etc.) stir sediment and disturb the ecosystems fish rely on in order to reproduce.

In every national park, there have always been visitors who lack consideration for the fragility of nature.  They trample vegetation, steal “souvenirs”, and show little respect to animals in their habitats.  More often than not, most visitors are unaware of this impact, as they are uneducated on nature ethics and figure the effects on the ecosystem will be minimal. Jason Brengle, an ecologist in Grand Teton National Park, says that “with the large numbers of visitors to Grand Teton National Park, it is hard to prevent some level of impact. But I believe that most of the times people are unaware of their influences.”  All parks experience this tourist naiveté to some degree, but they need to realize that even something as small as taking a few acorns can have a drastic impact on the ecosystem.  If all visitors were to partake in this sort of behavior, the effects would be widespread and drawn out (“Visitors Have Impact on Ecosystems”).

The biggest impact, perhaps, tourism and development have on national parks is the urbanization of wildlands and the alteration of ecosystems. National Geographic’s David Quammen discusses in the May 2016 issue how annual visitations from nearly four million tourists in Yellowstone has put a strain on the local ecosystem.  He adds how development around the park has also threatened the local environment.  For instance, construction of dams outside many parks, much like Muir’s Hetch Hetchy, affect migratory patterns of native fish (“Environmental Impacts of Tourism”).  These ecosystem changes endanger wildlife more than just at the surface level.

One way most tourists affect wildlife is in viewing them, since these interactions run the risk of altering animal behavior and scaring them out of the area.  Some people take it one step further by feeding wildlife.  This behavior leads animals to become reliant on human food, thereby abandoning their own, natural habits of obtaining food.  These animals may also become angered if they feel threatened by humans, and if feeding becomes an issue and behavioral change is seen, the animal may need to be relocated to a different area of the park or, in many cases, exterminated (“Leave No Trace”).  An organism that has had a key characteristic changed by visitor interaction is the black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus.  Before human encroachment, the animal would let out a response to alert others of a threat or another animal, but many, like those that reside in the prairie dog towns of Badlands National Park, have become habituated and no longer call out when human activity is nearby, completely altering their natural instinct (Breed).  With the increase in annual visitors, this behavior may become common in several more species, adding to the list of consequences of overcrowding tourists in national parks.

In 2015, the National Park Service saw the largest number of tourists it has ever seen.  According to a January 27, 2016 press release, there were more than 305 million visits to national parks, topping the previous record from 2014 of 292.8 million visits, an increase of 12 million, or about 4%; and 369 of the 409 parks saw record-breaking visitations (“Press Release”).  Rocky Mountain National Park received 4.2 million visitors, an increase of 49% from 2005, Yellowstone National Park received 4.1 million visitors, an increase of 45%, and Zion National Park set its own record when 3.6 million people visited the park, an increase of 41% since 2005 (“Long Lines”). Since 1979, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has made up at least 13% of annual park visits (“Stats Report Viewer”).

The National Park Service has not been prepared for such record breaking numbers each year, and this unpreparedness is apparent in the recent efforts to accommodate so many visitors.

Increased visits have led to a growth in trampled vegetation and the need to build more parking lots and wider roads.  Crowding outside of Yellowstone has started to ruin the “park experience” with traffic jams, the impossibility of solitude, and overall frustration among park-goers.  The cramped states of the “Mighty Five” of Utah—Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks— has prompted the need for buses and larger parking lots (Trenbeath).  Zion National Park and its infrastructure are “looking at a capacity issue,” according to Jack Burns, the park’s crowd management official, as even the bus system put into place to ease stress is becoming overwhelmed.  This stress is so big that the park service is considering putting a cap on daily visitors in the park, because many officials are worried that this overcapacity is ruining the wild, natural appeal of Zion and that of most other major parks (Siegler).

While most parks aren’t in the pristine state of their glory days, several have experienced larger impact than others.  Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser has attracted millions of visitors, prompting the erection of several new facilities surrounding the landmark including an inn, a restaurant, and a snow lodge.  Only recently have these facilities been renovated and expanded to accommodate the growing number of tourists (“Guest Services”).  What was once an uncongested sight has become gridlocked by the millions of visitors who stop to see Old Faithful every year.  In the Grand Canyon, pilots offer recreational flights around the park, distributing noise pollution that diminishes the trademark stillness the park is known for, and in Arches National Park, the influx of visitors has brought vandalism, especially graffiti, to this hidden gem.  Often, the spray paint is impossible to fully remove, leaving traces of the desecration on the ancient formations.  The pity is that this behavior has become common and “accepted in the public mood,” according to the park’s superintendent, Kate Cannon (Lockhart).  Overcrowding is to blame for many of these defilements, but there is another culprit: litter and waste disposal.

Every year, the NPS spends millions of dollars cleaning up garbage left by tourists.  Yellowstone invests nearly half a million yearly to clean up its park, while in Denali $75,000 is spent annually “to get rid of the 140 tons of garbage that visitors bring into the park.”  The problem is even worse for smaller parks, such as Isle Royale National Park, Maine, which spends $15,000 per annum, a costly amount for a park that does not receive as many visitors, and, therefore, as much funding, as other parks (“As Park Attendance Grows”).

This waste can include water bottles, wrappers, containers, cigarette butts, among countless other items.  Loose scrap ruins park aesthetic, clogging the natural feeling with garbage that has an even greater impact on the wildlife that come across it.  Recurring interaction with detritus and food waste may result in the dependence of animals on humans for food and the abandonment of their own natural methods of obtaining nutrients.  This is especially dangerous since it may lead animals to road crossings, populated picnic areas, and other high-traffic tourist centers.  Biscayne National Park, Florida, deals constantly with visitors leaving behind plastic bags and gum wrappers.  Consequently, park officials have introduced “Baynanza,” an initiative where local volunteers are organized to clean up trash in the park for a day every year.

Visitor attitude has been found to be a major factor in the decision to litter.  Clean-up initiatives like those in Biscayne present a positive image that urges visitors to clean up after themselves (“Park Battles Litter”).

On another note, underfunding of the parks has brought the issue of privatization into light.  In recent years, many Republican legislators have begun pushing for the parks to be put under state control, akin to the system in place for state parks, in attempt to allow corporate sponsorships to bring in higher income for the NPS.  Turning national parks over to private state control and allowing the states to sell “corporate sponsorships” would put the “public good” aspect of the parks at risk.  If national parks were created for the benefit of the people and the “enjoyment of future generations” then preservation should be guaranteed the same for all parks in all states, instead of being at the will of state governors with varying degrees of interest in conservation (“Privatizing National Parks”).  Since underfunding has become such an issue, the park service should look into pushing congress to raise the price of admission into the parks or finding other means of raising money without risking what makes the parks so special, their universal enjoyment by the people.

Car traffic and emissions are also major issues in American national parks for many reasons.  First, the noise cars produce is enough to both compete with natural sounds and diminish the intrinsic value of the parks.  In Shenandoah National Park, it can be hard to find a private trail in which you can’t hear cars passing by.  Second, increased traffic in national parks requires larger parking lots and wider roads, resulting in a Catch-22.  On one hand, expanding roads and parking lots will result in further destruction of flora; on the other, leaving lots at their current size will prompt visitors to just park in undesignated areas, resulting in the same impact while setting a precedent for tourists to park wherever they want (“Problems for Yosemite”).

Road construction also has the capacity to completely alter natural behavior and divide ecosystems, resulting in unnatural species movement.  Yellowstone National Park demonstrated this obstruction when it deterred bears away from their primary forage by situating many of its roads in “the most productive Grizzly Bear [Ursus horribilis] habitat,” according to Reed Noss in his essay “The Ecological Effects of Roads.”  In the same essay, Noss asserts that some bears are drawn to roads by the fast growing vegetation that surrounds them in the spring, often leading to fatalities.  These characteristics stem from roads’ tendencies to habituate wildlife, as some animals no longer fear humans and can be seen actively approaching roads, picnicking families, or hikers.

Due to the season-based industry of the National Park Service, certain times of the year have up to “ten times more inhabitants in the high season as in the low season,” (“Environmental Impacts of Tourism”).  Amid the tourism high season, national parks compete with severe stress on their natural resources (water, energy, food) and struggle to keep up with the energy demands of non-vacant lodges.

The areas outside of the parks take as large an impact as those inside.  There are so called “tourist traps” springing up in towns outside of national parks that try to lure in families looking for entertainment with their large, bright, playful looking businesses.  The abundance of shops selling overpriced products outcompete rivaling local businesses, completely altering local economies and drowning them with for-profit motivations.  Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, are two major “gateway towns” bordering Smoky Mountain National Park filled with several attractions such as go-karts, dinner-theatres, mini-golf, and countless gift shops.

In considering these negative impacts of tourism and development, it is also important to examine the other side of the fence, the positive effects the two have had on the industry.

Part Three: The Positive Role of Tourism and Development on a Growing Park Industry

Despite the previous arguments outlining the detrimental effects of tourism, there are still benefits to both tourism and development in and around national parks.  For example, exposure to America’s natural landmarks has led to an increased awareness for environmental issues and a motivation to conserve the few less impacted areas of the country.  This awareness can be seen in most parks where museums and knowledgeable park rangers inform visitors on the issues facing the parks and what can be done to help combat degradation.  In Yosemite National Park, for example, several visitor centers display the history of the park all the way back to Muir’s struggle as well as the pollution issues currently threatening the park.  In Shenandoah National Park, many information kiosks inform visitors of the protected flora and fauna within the park, and in Yellowstone, the visitor centers educate sightseers on the geology of the park.

Furthermore, even companies seem to have been educated on their impact on national parks.  Previous issues with park pollution have forced companies to adapt and conform to stricter emission regulations, like in Grand Canyon National Park, where anthropogenic haze has led to the installation of scrubbers in coal-fired power plants (“Environmental Factors”).

Despite tourism leading to several instances of diminished park quality, it is hard to argue the economic benefit the donations and park fees have.  These funds provide for further conservation efforts, and the need for rangers and park officials has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, contributing to local economies as well.

For parks with less developed surrounding localities, the attractions draw in entrepreneurs, businesses, and retirees looking for a higher quality of life, creating the  perfect climate for positive development that will further the economic growth in the area.  This positive appeal has been tested with “West is Best,” the concept that “the West’s popular national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands offer its growing high-tech and services industries a competitive advantage,” according to a 2012 report by Headwater Economics.  The report backs this claim up by stating that, “From 1970 to 2010, the West’s employment grew by 152 percent compared to 78 percent for the rest of the country,” a development boom that can at least partially be attributed to the national parks since, “western non-metropolitan counties with more than 30 percent of the county’s land base in federal protected status such as national parks, monuments, wilderness, and other similar designations increased jobs by 345 percent over the last 40 years.”  In contrast, “similar counties without protected federal public lands increased employment by 83 percent.”  Furthermore, these counties with at least 100,000 acres of federal land made $4,360 more per capita income in 2010 than those without these protected lands (“West is Best”).

It is evident that this idea of “West is Best” is valid because the counties with federally protected lands have tended to have a greater increase in jobs since 1970.  There are upsides as well as downsides to this western sprawl, however, for the more jobs surrounding a national park mean higher development in that area and higher emissions, which cause the issues previously delineated.

Finally, the attractive, pristine qualities of national parks are highly treasured by those who visit, thus giving an incentive to those in charge to keep them that way.  The areas around parks rely heavily on the income that comes from tourism, so to give up on preserving the beauty would be abandoning that source of income (“Environmental Impacts of Tourism”).

Yet, as previously mentioned, tourism and development have both crippled the vision of the National Park Service’s founders.  Has America, perhaps, passed the point of no return?  Is there any chance of saving these natural wonders?  If there is to be likelihood of preserving park lands and insuring long term profitability, now is the time to start conserving.  Immediate, cooperative reform is vital if Americans want any of the vacation destinations they now have to remain in the next 50 years.

Part Four: Reforms to Mitigate Tourist Impact

The easiest solution to park degradation is to educate visitors on the importance of all parks in the United States.  By enlightening the public on “the social and cultural contexts in which parks arose,” the park service will make people want to visit other parks, not just the most popular ones (DeMotts).  Incentivizing travelers to go see smaller parks will alleviate the stress on major parks like Great Smoky Mountains and Denali.  In parks where there are no better alternatives, there needs to be a system to locally mitigate the impact of high season crowds.

A promising system already in place in several parks is bus transportation.  Both Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks employ this service and no longer have to worry about the prospect of widening roads or making trailhead parking lots larger.

Highly contested is the idea of well-liked parks having a reservation system to limit the crowds to only a certain number of visitors at a time.  Reservations can be made months in advance and any unwanted spots can be sold off in a lottery system, such as that used for trail permits all over the United States.  Furthermore, requiring a paid reservation will dissuade visitors from vandalism, like that in Arches National Park.  The downsides of reservations would be the removal of the accessibility of national parks, a characteristic that has defined the National Park Service since its inception, but if people learn to plan ahead and know what to expect, reservations would be a small price to pay to ensure the future of national parks.

In certain parks, air tours have become very popular in viewing the park.  They offer stunning vistas and a way of seeing the parks from angles one wouldn’t be able to view from the ground.  The Grand Canyon, Denali, and Rocky Mountain National Parks are among those that support commercial aviation, but such flight opportunities create noise pollution and compromise what is known as the “acoustical environment,” comprised of natural sounds (water, vegetation, and wildlife) and “cultural sounds (battle reenactments, tribal ceremonies, quiet reverence)” for those parks with historic significance.  Several policies have already been implemented to limit the impact of aviation, like requiring parks to have a Commercial Air Tour Management Plan and the formation of the Natural Sounds Program from the laws created to minimize noise pollution in parks (“Aviation”).  Another reform to limit this impact would be to restrict flying time around parks to certain parts of the year, perhaps low season and early high season, when flyers won’t add to the effects of large-scale ground tourism without sacrificing scenic vistas.

Another major proposal to minimize the impact of tourism involves the parks themselves reducing emissions and degradation of the environment.  Such regulation can only be implemented, however, if the National Park Service promotes the incorporation of green energy into park facilities.  This promotion could include the use of solar, geothermal, and wind energies to reduce the consumption of resources and the need for power lines within the parks.  Yellowstone, for example, is a highly active area that could see benefit from utilizing the power under the park to reduce the need for fossil fuels.  These generators would need to be well hidden as to not be an eyesore to visitors, but if used correctly, they could have the potential to save millions of dollars in resources per year and protect the park from any unhealthy emissions.

Denali National Park’s Eielson Visitor Center offers a glimpse into a sustainable future of the National Park Service, as it is a groundbreaking example of environmental design.  It has a low profile building that blends with the Tundra surrounding it, a camouflaged roof deck, and electricity powered by “a hybrid propane generator system with photovoltaic panels and a battery bank” (“Eielson Visitor Center”).  Awareness, therefore, is key if the park service wishes to limit anthropogenic degradation.  Through awareness programs already in place, the National Park Service has been able to educate visitors on low-impact behavior that, hopefully, will chip away at blaring instances of park degradation over the next few decades.

One of the most effective initiatives is Leave No Trace, which emphasizes “wilderness ethics and sustainable travel and camping practices” within park boundaries.  Created in the 1960s by the United States Department of Agriculture, Leave No Trace started out as a proposal to limit “biophysical effects” on federally protected land.  Since then, Leave No Trace has emphasized seven major principles: “Plan ahead and prepare”; “Travel and camp on durable surfaces”; “Dispose of waste properly”; “Leave what you find”; “Minimize campfire impacts”; “Respect Wildlife”; and “Be considerate of other visitors” (“Leave No Trace”).  Tourists prioritizing these rules will set a precedent for the next generation of visitors and will effectively lead to better conservation practices, not just in national parks, but in all natural areas.  For this reason, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all promote Leave No Trace’s principles and think of it as a long term investment in conservation.

Another major investment in the future of park sustainability is youth programs.  Targeted at youths under eighteen years old, these programs encourage sustainable living by having teens and young adults work to rehabilitate and restore national park lands.  A few of the more popular programs are the Youth Conservation Corps, the Public Land Corps, Youth Scouts, and Scout Rangers, which have divisions in parks all over the country.

Over the past 100 years, the National Park Service has taken the toll only hundreds of millions of people can cause.  All over the United States, national parks have seen a mass influx of visitors who, ironically, have degraded natural wonders prized by all Americans since their establishments.  The National Park Service has not been prepared to face these adversities and has only made the situation worse and given into the needs of these tourists by widening roads, building bigger facilities, and being lenient on pollution.  Americans must start caring, they must get out of the house, and they must take action. Do they sacrifice a few liberties within the park, like the privilege of driving their own car or freely coming any time of the year, in order to ensure persistent beauty long into the future?  Do they leave the hard work to the already strained park service or join the community and volunteer to strive for sustainability and long-lasting conservation?  All it could take is choosing a different, equally stunning park instead of a crowded, degraded one like Yellowstone to travel to, opting to use sustainable transportation over a pollution dense car, planning trips more judiciously, or simply committing to conservation of that which Americans hold dear to make national parks everlasting.



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