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

We found a brewing crisis: 3km-long “bison jams” in Yellowstone, fistfights in parking lots at Glacier, a small Colorado town overrun by millions of visitors.

Moreover, we found people wrestling with an existential question: What should a national park be in the modern age? Can parks embrace an unlimited number of visitors while retaining what made them, as the writer Wallace Stegner once put it, “the best idea we ever had?”

In 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park in the world. In 1904, the first year for which visitation figures are available, 120,690 people visited the national parks, which by then included Mount Rainier, Sequoia and Yosemite.

By the mid-century that number swelled to tens of millions, as more parks were added to the system and destination road trips became synonymous with US vacations.

UNDERFUNDING

However, today the pace of visitation has outstripped resources. Much of the National Park Service’s infrastructure dates back to the Mission 66, a US$1 billion initiative undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, and was not built with modern crowds in mind.

Environmental challenges are burgeoning — recent research has found national parks bear the disproportionate brunt of global warming — and years of wear and tear have seen park maintenance fall woefully behind.

The current backlog of necessary upgrades to road, trails and buildings stands at more than US$11 billion.

US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s bid to sharply increase entry fees at the busiest parks to pay for repairs proved so unpopular it had to be walked back in April.

Traffic congestion has become one of the most visible consequences of overcrowding and underfunding, with some locations seeing tens of thousands of cars per day during peak months.

In Yosemite, despite a shuttle system, the park warns summer visitors to expect two to three-hour delays entering Yosemite Valley.

In Yellowstone, epic bottlenecks are frequent. Famed for its grizzly bears, gray wolves and bison herds, the park is arguably “wilder” than it was 50 years ago, thanks to conservation work.

However, this rewilding has meant animal sightings routinely cause gridlock along its two-lane roads.

On a recent August day in Hayden Valley, a “bison jam” stretched nearly 3.2km long. As the herd moved steadily across the road, a scene of frantic commotion began to unfold. Travelers excitedly scrambled from their vehicles.

Bison passed within inches, even brushing up against the cars. Some tourists temporarily abandoned their vehicles in the hope of getting close enough for a photo.

Impatient motorists tooted their horns as park rangers tried to bring order.

“My job is to manage people, not animals, and I try not to get upset,” one park ranger said. “Most visitors just don’t know how to behave in a wild place.”

However, the bison were not the only drama. In the Lamar Valley, a pack of wolves just visible in the distance drew a swarm of vehicles into a turnout. People poured out, leaving their cars parked cattywampus, blocking traffic in both directions.

Sometimes travelers get more of a souvenir than they bargained for. This summer has seen a handful of visitors gored or kicked by bison and elk when they ventured too close.

Meanwhile, a video of a man taunting a bison went viral and citations have been issued to troublemakers who illegally flew drones and tossed rocks and debris into Yellowstone’s sensitive geothermal features, which risks destroying them forever.

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