The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday:
Something’s wrong with our National Parks system when lines to get to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim look like lines to get “Hamilton” tickets. America’s annual pilgrimage to our national parks has become a shoulder-to-shoulder, bumper-to-bumper stress test.
Last year a record 307 million people flocked to America’s federal parks, a 5 percent jump from the previous year. This year, as the National Park Service marks its centennial — President Woodrow Wilson signed the system into law on Aug. 25, 1916 — attendance is expected to reach 315 million people — just shy of the nation’s estimated population of 324 million.
The Park Service’s most popular destinations are all having record attendance. The Grand Canyon: 5.5 million in 2015, a 16 percent jump from 2014. Yosemite: 4.1 million, 6.8 percent jump. Yellowstone: 4 million, 16 percent jump. The result? Two-hour waits just to get up to a park’s entrance. Overspilling trash cans. Jam-packed parking lots. Interminably long lines at bathrooms and shuttle stops.
But it’s not just the waiting that’s so vexing. A walk through a columbine-dotted mountain glade at Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t the same when throngs of other park-goers on the same path make it seem like an O’Hare concourse. The quietude of the national park experience is diminished when the experience starts to feel and sound like everyday urban bustle. And then there are the tales of Tourists Behaving Badly. Remember the Canadian tourist at Yellowstone who stuck a bison calf in his SUV because he thought it was cold? The animal had to be euthanized after it could not be reunited with its herd. And the bane of all national parks: tourists in cars who jam up traffic so they can get a snapshot of an elk or mule deer.
Debate has begun at some parks about capping the number of visitors. We think the debate should stop — set the caps already! We make reservations at our favorite restaurants — why should the concept of making a reservation at Yellowstone or Yosemite be any different? Quota systems that keep parks from being overrun and overtaxed have a history of succeeding. At Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, a quota system has been in place for years, preserving the area’s natural beauty and the tranquil experience visitors seek.
Along with controlling the numbers of visitors, there’s something every vacationer can do to help cull the crowds at overcrowded parks — self-culling. Americans need to realize that the nation’s natural beauty isn’t just embodied in the National Park Service’s titanic draws: Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, about an eight-hour drive from Chicago, astounds with its sandstone sea caves. The spires and buttes of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park look otherworldly. And if you really want to get away from it all, pick up a backpack and get on the ferry to Isle Royale in Michigan, where the only way to get around is on foot.
Quotas will go a long way toward keeping our national parks from withering from the weight of the masses. But Americans also need to remember that national parks aren’t just backdrops for Facebook selfies — they’re a national treasure that deserves reverence, awe … and breathing room.