Parks across the country have seen record-breaking numbers of visitors this summer, even as we continue to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19. I’m sure you’ve seen the images; visitors lined up to hike at Zion National Park, heavy traffic at Yellowstone National Park and big crowds in Arches National Park.
Here in Maine, Acadia National Park is dealing with a similar situation. Watching the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain isn’t a solitary experience anymore. Despite the recent implementation of a reservation system for Cadillac Mountain Road, the park counted 660,779 visitors in June 2021, an increase of nearly 35 percent from June 2019. And July was the single busiest month on record.
While we can attribute lockdown fatigue from the pandemic for some of the high visitation this year, the truth is that visitation to parks has been on the rise for years. I spent more than 35 years with the National Park Service, retiring as the superintendent of Acadia. And I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be to balance the visitor experience with the protection of resources, especially in the face of record-breaking crowds.
Visitation to Acadia has increased about 60 percent over the past 10 years. The park has taken a number of steps to reduce overcrowding and protect the resources, such as encouraging the use of bikes or public transportation and instituting a reservation system. National parks across the system are exploring similar methods.
But there are other solutions that can help address overcrowding and ensure the protection of our resources while providing for a meaningful visitor experience.
The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act provided much-needed funds to not only address the maintenance backlog in our national parks, but further protect park resources. Passage of the act also included the permanent and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which can be used to purchase inholdings — or property within the boundary of national parks that is privately owned. I refer to this as “filling in the holes.”
At Acadia, LWCF funds would allow the park to acquire land near the Bass Harbor Head Light Station, a popular and congested location within the park. Because the land is close to the lighthouse and along its access road, it’s an ideal location for a satellite parking area for nearby popular trailheads.
I don’t think our national parks are going to see a drop in visitation any time soon. In fact, I think visitation will continue to grow. So, we must continue to prioritize the protection of our national parks and public lands. President Joe Biden’s America the Beautiful plan, which sets a goal of conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030, is a good start. And many project priorities for Great American Outdoor Act funds align nicely with this plan.
We should begin by adequately funding our existing national parks and other protected areas. Too often, as visitation is exploding, park budgets are decreasing when inflation and other increasing costs are considered.
Acadia’s visitation has increased 56 percent since 2010 while its annual operating budget (i.e. buying power) has declined by 8 percent. This directly translates to reduced staffing and cuts in visitor services such as information and education programming, emergency services, routine maintenance and cleaning, and resource protection work. All national parks need a significant increase in annual appropriations to return visitor services and park protections to professional standards that are necessary to preserve these cherished public lands for future generations.
The recent stories and images focused on the number of Americans traveling to national parks right now demonstrates how much our country loves these incredible spaces. But as Maine’s Sen. Angus King said recently, visitors might be “loving our parks to death.”
We need to implement solutions to protect park resources and the high-quality experience visitors have come to expect. We need more staff to protect our national parks, and we need more funding to get those employees in place. We urge Congress to make sure that our national parks are preserved and protected for the enjoyment of our children and their children as well.
Sheridan Steele retired as superintendent of Acadia National Park and the St. Croix Island International Historic Site after a 38-year career with the National Park Service. He divides his time between Maine and Colorado and is an executive council member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.