Sat, Nov 24, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Crisis in national parks: How tourists are loving
nature to death

As thrill seekers and Instagrammers swarm public lands, reporting from seven sites across the US shows the scale of the threat

By Charlotte Simmonds, et al  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Just before sunset near Page, Arizona, a parade of humanity marched up the sandy, half-mile trail toward Horseshoe Bend. They had come from all over the world.

Some carried boxes of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, others cradled Chihuahuas and a few men hid engagement rings in their pockets.

Howevr, just about everyone had one thing at the ready: a cellphone to snap a picture.

Horseshoe Bend is one of the US west’s most celebrated overlooks. From a sheer sandstone precipice just a few kilometers outside Grand Canyon national park, visitors get a bird’s-eye view of the emerald Colorado River as it makes a U-turn 250m below.

Hundreds of kilometers from any large city and nestled in the heart of southwest canyon country, Horseshoe Bend was once as lonely as it was beautiful.

“It was just a local place for family outings,” said Bill Diak, 73, who has lived in Page for 38 years and served three terms as its mayor. “But with the invention of the cellphone, things changed overnight.”

Horseshoe Bend is what happens when a patch of public land becomes #instagramfamous. Over the past decade photos have spread like wildfire on social media, catching the 7,000 residents of Page and local land managers off guard.

Visitation grew from a few thousand annual visitors historically to 100,000 in 2010 — the year Instagram was launched, Diak said.

By 2015, an estimated 750,000 people made the pilgrimage. This year visitation is expected to reach 2 million.

Numbers used to peak in the summer, but tourists now stream in all year round — nearly 5,000 per day. And fame has come with a dark side.

In May, a Phoenix man fell to his death when he slipped off the cliff edge.

In 2010, a Greek tourist died when a rock underneath him gave way as he took photos, police said.

Like the recent death of a couple taking photographs in Yosemite, the incidents have raised troubling questions about what happens when nature goes viral.

“Social media is the number one driver,” said Maschelle Zia, who manages Horseshoe Bend for the Glen Canyon national recreation area. “People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for the iconic photo.”


Across the US, national parks and public lands are facing a crisis of popularity. Technology, successful marketing and international tourism have brought a surge in visitation unlike anything seen before.

In 2016 and last year, the national parks saw an unprecedented 330.9 million visitors, the highest ever recorded. That is not far off the US population itself.

Backcountry trails are clogging up, mountain roads are thickening with traffic, picturesque vistas are morphing into selfie-taking scrums and in the process, what is most loved about them risks being lost.

“The least-studied mammal in Yellowstone is the most abundant: humans,” said Dan Wenk, the former superintendent of one the most chronically overcrowded parks in the system.

In Yellowstone, the US’ oldest national park, visitation has surged 40 percent since 2008, topping 4 million last year.

After 43 years in the park service, Wenk is worried.

“Our own species is having the greatest impact on the park and the quality of the experience is becoming a casualty,” he said.

Over a period of four months, from high summer to late autumn, the Guardian dispatched writers across the US’ west to examine how overcrowding is playing out at ground level.

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