Loving our parks to death

You’ve heard the old story, one version or another, about a family who builds a cabin next to a lake or on a high hill where there’s a spectacular view. Their friends visit, some build next door, then one day a restaurant appears and a gas station and a traffic light and a hotel and, in time, the place is just as crowded as the neighborhoods in town everyone tried to escape.

The national parks are suffering a similar death, one in which most people consider humans to be the most invasive species with the once pristine preserve. Years ago, Glacier National Park was considered the most threatened park in the NPS system, primarily from air and water polution that arose outside its borders. Now the new threat comes from within as the NPS continues to resist putting a cap on the number of visitors allowed each year.

Glacier started a ticketed entry system this year. So far, it seems to be managing the traffic. The sad thing is this: it’s not reducing the traffic. A recent story said visitor counts on Sun Road in Glacier are up 41% over 2019. I had hoped the NPS would manage to reduce the number of visitors based on the premise that too many is too many if the park and its flora and fauna are to be preserved.

When a new building goes up in town, the fire marshal establishes a maximum occupancy in the name of safety. We  need a similar limit for parks because once our invasive species of humans have overrun the place, it will lose everything the NPS was supposed to be preserving. In Glacier, there are traffic jams not only to get into the park, but of hikers waiting to use popular trails like the High Line which, I suppose, will one day have a turnstile at each end to control access.

Unfortunately, the most viable way to reduce visitor counts is also the most unfair: charging so much that people cannot afford the bill. This means the rich get in and the poor do not. The ticketed entry system seems to be helping at Glacier. I look forward, though, to the next viable and democratic system that truly keeps each year’s visitor counts to a safe level.

In the 1960s when I worked in Glacier as a seasonal employee, we said, “Thank goodness nodody knows where this place is.” Unfortunately, they’ve found out. The park was overcrowded several years ago: letting more people in is not the answer we need.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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