National parks deserve better treatment

ABIGAIL SAATHOFF, Opinion Columnist

When I was younger, my family and I went on a vacation to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. It was our first vacation to a National Park, we had been to a few local state parks and Disney World of course, but never something like this. For the full week, we were there, my family and I stayed in a cute little cabin, and spent our time climbing the huge (and beautiful) rock formations, going on hikes, and screaming with excitement every single time we saw a bison. The park was incredible, and it was one of my favorite experiences of my life. Most of the time, it seemed as though we had the park to ourselves, and we couldn’t help but enjoy every moment. Now, nearly 15 years later, you often hear stories of people approaching the bison, the parks being ridiculously overcrowded, and a lot of litter being left. 

When the pandemic hit, national parks began booming. Suddenly, this secret gem that I felt like only a few special families knew about was everyone’s perfect vacation. The chill and relaxing experiences at national parks were no longer the status quo, people struggled to find parking at the parks, trails became crowded, and parks began to make people prepay for parking to hopefully reduce the overconsumption of the parks. According to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, “We can accidentally love our parks to death.” King includes that the rise in visitation is incredible, but also has distinctive impacts on the parks themselves, vandalism, littering, traffic and overcrowding which leads to stressing the park’s natural resources and negative impacts on wildlife. 

At Arches National Park, they had to close their gate 158 times, most of those times for hours at a time, to prevent the parks from being too overcrowded, so that people have room for parking. In 2022, the park required reservations for the first time. All of this has left employees of the parks struggling with how to adapt, even considering taking wait times and cues from the theme park world. Even worse, I found myself reading an article with a list of national parks to avoid, beautiful parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion that people are suggesting we avoid based on the distinctive impacts of overcrowding. Seeing this I couldn’t help but be a little upset. From the time after that first trip, my family went to the Grand Canyon, the Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. Each of these came with unique and beautiful experiences, it’s a shame that the overcrowding has changed things so much. According to the New York Times, on one of the days they visited “by late morning, the wait to enter the park was about 30 minutes — and growing,” wait times more reminiscent of Walt Disney World rather than the Grand Canyon. 

Finally, I love national parks. They quickly became my favorite vacation, as they had all the benefits of a fun vacation with family without the stress of busy places and long wait times, but with all of the changes, visiting a national park has begun to turn into a hassle rather than an enjoyable and relaxing trip. Hopefully, as time passes, more and more vacation spots will emerge, and visiting the national parks will be streamlined so that the process is enjoyable.