PEER Criticizes NPS Over High Visitation Numbers, Call For Visitor Caps

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has come out with a report criticizing the National Park Service over visitor carrying capacities.

PEER says in their review that the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 mandates visitor carrying capacities to be established in all national parks, encompassing every area within park boundaries.

We previously reported that officials in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and other national parks were mulling visitor caps and other measures to deal with mounting congestion and strain on park resources.

According to the Missoulian, PEER reviewed 108 of the NPS’ units (including all 59 national parks) and found that only seven have established visitor limits—with six of those only pertaining to certain facilities:

“The safeguards Congress enacted to prevent national parks from being loved to death have become dead letters,” Jeff Ruch, the executive director of PEER, says.

Ruch maintains the park service has pushed to increase visitation with a “Find Your Park” campaign at a time when several national parks, including Yellowstone, are grappling with long lines at entrance stations, traffic jams once visitors get in, and overcrowding.

“Last year was an invitation – we invited the American people to find their park,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said jokingly earlier this year to a gathering of business people. “This year, we’re asking people to find another park.”

Says Ruch, “Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ this summer the challenge should be called, ‘Find a Place to Park.’”


PEER’s study, which included the 59 national parks, 19 national preserves, two national reserves, 18 national recreation areas and 10 national seashores, found that less than half – 51 – had general management plans in place “despite a nearly 40-year-old statutory requirement that every unit of the National Park System have a current” one.

The management plans, which have life spans of up to 20 years, are “supposed to spell out measures for the preservation of the area’s resources, steps for addressing challenges posed by transportation and infrastructure needs, as well as means for maximizing visitor enjoyment,” PEER says.

Instead, the organization says several prominent parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon, either have no plans or plans that are more than two decades old.

“Twenty years is a long time for large parks to drift without any game plan,” Ruch says.

The study, coincidentally, was released during the NPS’ centennial year, with national parks across the nation inviting more and more visitors.

NPS representative Jeffrey Olson, responding to the PEER review, agrees in part with Ruch’s assessment, that 20 years is too long a time to leave a management plan in place. Olson, however, did not agree with Ruch that the park system is on the verge of cataclysm due to overcrowding. From the Missoulian:

“We’re moving away from management plans,” Olson says. “They take a long, long time, and are very expensive to do. We’re changing to shorten the time frame, which has a lot to do with what a changing climate is doing to parks. We want planning that can be more responsive and pro-active.

“We also administer 28 different kinds of parks, which is another reason to move away from the one-size-fits-all mode.”

As far as limiting the number of visitors goes, Olson says it “hasn’t been an issue til the centennial years … it just hasn’t been a topic that has crossed my desk in 10 years.”

“Every national park is not overcrowded,” he goes on. “Even at their busiest, if people get out of the visitor centers and out on trails, they’re likely to have a piece of the park to themselves. In Glacier, the parking lot at Logan Pass may be full, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for people to take pictures of Wild Goose Island at St. Mary Lake.”

Some units administered by the National Park Service have the equivalent of carrying capacities built in, Olson noted.

“The Washington Monument can only fit so many people in the elevator during a day,” he says. “There’s a cap on how many people can ride to the top, but that doesn’t mean visitors can’t enjoy the Washington Monument or the National Mall. The same holds true for the Statue of Liberty.”


Those 411 units administered by the National Park Service range from the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, to the David Berger National Memorial in Ohio, which covers just a few square yards (it’s a sculpture). The extremes in visitation run the gamut from the Blue Ridge Parkway, which had more than 15 million visitors last year, to the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, which welcomed all of 120 people in 2015.

Applying the same 38-year-old management plan and carrying capacity requirements to those, and all that fall in between, just doesn’t make sense, Olson suggests.

But PEER says that three of the 10 most visited national parks in America – Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Grand Teton – have no general management plan, and four more have plans that are between 21 and 34 years old.

In recent years, visitors and Yellowstone-area residents have complained of congestion in the Park, especially on the roads, where it sometimes take hours to travel 15 or 20 miles, with traffic slowed to a crawl. Wenk has gone on record saying that has as much to do “wildlife jams” as the amount of cars, although Wenk has acknowledged the recent rise in visitation (including a record-breaking 2015) complicates matters. Especially since 2016 is on track to break last year’s record.

Ultimately, the PEER review calls not only for visitor carrying capacities, but also public input for all future management plans. “The American public is increasingly being shut out of any meaningful role in national park planning,” Ruch told the Missoulian. “Amid its centennial self-celebration, the park service appears to accept booster-ism as a substitute for strategy and record-high visitation as a replacement for planning.”

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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