US National Parks Under Siege

US National Parks Under Siege


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US National Parks are under threat like never before from the Trump Administration, funding shortfalls, and being loved to death by too many tourists. Justin Francis, Founder of Responsible Travel, reports on a key issue for sustainable tourism.

Yellowstone, established in 1872, is famously the world’s first National Park. Its success inspired countries across the world to follow suit, and yet US National Parks are under threat like never before.

With maintenance funding shortfalls of over $11bn popular trails in Zion National Park have been closed since 2010, elsewhere rusting pipes providing drinking water are continuously breaking and historic cabins have collapsed.

The Trump administration has offered an $18bn fund to address this, but it comes with an almighty catch. It will be paid for by deregulating oil and gas extraction, firing staff and allowing Ryan Zinke, The Interior Secretary, to sell off any public lands he wishes. In January ten members of the National Park Service advisory board quit en masse.

Desperate to raise funds Yosemite has a Starbucks close to the world famous Yosemite Falls. While some expressed their happiness at being able to enjoy a coffee in familiar surroundings, 25,000 people signed a petition objecting to it, one of whom said

‘National Parks are supposed to represent the sheer, untouched beauty of nature. It is meant to be untouched by the civilized and corporate world. However, placing a Starbucks in the centre of it makes it nothing short of a cheap tourist attraction’.

Seventeen of the most popular US National Parks including Yosemite and Yellowstone will be increasing entrance fees significantly during the peak season, partly to address funding shortfalls and partly to address ‘over tourism’ issues in these months.

Price rises are controversial with some as they may restrict access for less well off visitors but at $70 for a vehicle with four passengers Park entrance fees are the same as four Caffe Mocha’s for each passenger. Well worth it for a visit to one of the most spectacular places on earth!

Overcrowding issues are also becoming a major threat, both to the Parks and to people’s enjoyment of them.

In 2016 the Parks attracted a record 331 million visitors. Zion National park saw 4.3m visitors, up 60% from ten years ago. At the top of Angels Landing, portable toilets were closed with a sign: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

Park visitors are not required to make an online reservation before visiting, and there are no limits on visitors. Park Managers are unable to control where, when or how many visitors a Park attracts on a daily basis. Without this it seems to me that tourism is impossible to manage, and I’m amazed it’s taken this long (or that we needed to reach a crisis) for Park Management to start to address this.

It’s time we started properly valuing, funding and managing US National Parks. Much as it has been since 1872 the world will be watching.

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