By Carl Wojciechowski
Visitor numbers at National Parks are reaching unprecedented levels. In 2016, according to numbers released by the National Parks Service (NPS) and as reported by the New York Times, 331 million visits across all parks. As data analysis website FiveThirtyEight points out, visitor have been steadily growing since the first parks opened. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the advent of the automobile and the interstate highway system and a greater appreciation for the outdoors. It has even reached the point where it is a problem in many parks: Overcrowding is leading to vandalism, impacting ecosystems and causing congestion on park roads. Budget cuts have also impacted parks, making them more difficult to manage.
The NPS has proposed one solution: to require permits to visit parks. The details aren’t clear yet, but one version has online reservations that must be made prior to visitation with a set arrival time, and a cap on visitors. Another version would require reservation only for the most popular spots. The idea would be to reduce the stress on the parks and give park managers a reprieve from the pressure of so many visitors. There are however, opponents to this method.
There is another possible solution to issue that could go alongside the permitting system to help relieve congestion in parks, yet allow a large number of people visit the parks. If either the number of parks was expanded, the size of existing parks was expanded, or both, the NPS may be able to offer more areas to visit while relieving strain on the most congested areas. The question is, how would we decide how much to expand park size or number in a financially sound manner? One method for achieving this would be the revealed preference method of travel-cost. By calculating how much money people are willing to spend on a trip to a given park, we may be able to calculate value to be found in expanding to park to accommodate more visitors, and how much the National Park Service should spend on land to increase the size or number of parks. If done in conjunction with ecologists and other analyses, the NPS may be able to find an optimal way to be able to serve a growing number of users while maintaining the relative environmental health of the park. This could also help preserve natural areas for the use of future generations and even offset other environmental damage humans have caused.
Another method might be a stated preference method, giving a survey to Americans and asking them outright what they are willing to spend to visit a park. The advantage of this method would be that one would be able to account for different factors, such as how much they are willing to spend to visit a more popular part of a park versus a part of the park that is less popular and has fewer amenities. With this method a bit more nuance may be able to be built into the survey to account for preferences.
There are weaknesses to both methods. Travel-cost method can’t measure non-use or non-consumptive value, for example. Revealed preference method has its own problem in the form of a number of biases those taking the survey might have, such as strategic bias, where those who favor expanding the parks might overvalue their willingness-to-pay. In addition to these economic weaknesses, there may be push back from some environmentalists. They may wish to see more wilderness at least mostly untouched by humans and resist the expansion of parks open to visitors and accessible by car. There is also the political feasibility factor to consider. In a time when all environmental issues are being set aside, the idea of spending money to expand parks, regardless of the possible benefits, may not a realistic proposal at the moment.
According to park managers and rangers, there seems to be good reason to limit visitor numbers in our most crowded National Parks. While the National Park System was created to preserve natural resources so that everyone can experience the natural world, there likely needs to be some balance, both to preserve the parks for future generations and protect the natural components of these parks. With careful planning and proper investment, it could be possible to strike that balance.
Flowers, Andrew. “The National Parks Have Never Been More Popular.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 25 May 2016, fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-national-parks-have-never-been-more-popular/.
“Annual Visitation Highlights.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 6 Sept. 2017, www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/annual-visitation-highlights.htm.
“What We Do (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/index.htm.
Tietenberg, Tom, and Lynne Lewis. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. 10th ed., Routledge, 2016.
Turkewitz, Julie. “National Parks Struggle With a Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/national-parks-overcrowding.html