BY BIRGITTA JANSEN
A SIGNIFICANT INCREASE in visitation to public lands has become a major issue for the managers of these lands and for the land itself. There are many factors that have contributed to the use and in some places, overuse of public lands. Current trends are continuing to intensify. A closer look at the issues, the trends, and industries involved may help us to understand them better, and hopefully enter into conversations about where to go from here, and action.
“Made in America”
On November 7, 2017, Ryan Zinke, the then U.S. Secretary of the Interior, established a new committee called: “Made in America Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee.” The committee’s mandate was to advise the Secretary of the Interior on public-private partnerships across all public lands with the goal of expanding access to and improving infrastructure on public lands and waterways.1 The sixteen members, all representatives of the tourism, travel, and outdoor recreation industries, were specifically selected for their knowledge about and experience with: “utilizing public-private partnerships, providing recreational visitor experiences, developing and deploying infrastructure improvements, or a thorough understanding of recreational equipment.”2
Indiana Representative Jackie Waloski (R) was even more explicit about the goals of this committee: “I am pleased Secretary Zinke is launching the ‘Made in America’ Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee to help achieve the important goals of increasing access to our nation’s public lands, boosting investment in outdoor tourism, and building more American-made products like RVs and boats.”3
However the committee’s recommendations “to greater privatize national parks” were met with heavy criticism.4 As a result the Department of the Interior quietly announced the termination of the “Made in America” Committee, on November 1, 2019. This was more than four months before its charter was to expire on March 13, 2020. No explanation was given.
The committee was terminated; Secretary Zinke has left his position. It may look like the story ends there. But it doesn’t. The trends continue. As Jayson O’Neill, director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based public lands watchdog group, says, “that was the beginning of plans to monetize some of the country’s most iconic sites. The pressures on public lands are enormous and we must remember that the value of those shared lands is far greater than the dollars they generate. Increased visitation, and the factors that drive that increase, is a part of the picture.”5
The pressures that drive the significant increase in visitation to public lands are varied and complex but can be understood to fall more or less into two main categories:
1) The growth of the outdoor recreation, tourism, and travel industries.
2) People and their motivations, interests, and attitudes
A reciprocal relationship exists between these two categories; i.e. they drive each other.
In the context of our current civilization, economic needs and growth are now the highest priority and therefore this reciprocal relationship is encouraged and facilitated by political interests as well.
The Outdoor Recreation, Tourism, and Travel Industries
Outdoor recreation includes many activities such as camping, motorcycling, off-roading, and so on. When the full force of Covid-19 hit and social distancing became necessary, the Outdoor Industry Association did not fail to take note that people went outdoors en masse.
The NPD Group, an organization tracking trends in business, collected data showing significant growth in sales of equipment related to outdoor activities. Cycling related sales saw the largest increase in sales with a 63% increase in June 2020 compared to the same time last year, and reaching nearly $700M in sales.6
The Outdoor Industry Association is the lobbying arm of outdoor industries. It states that increasing access and conservation are a top priority. Their policy is as follows: “From recreation access to balanced trade, the issues that affect our businesses and our customers are constantly on the dockets of local, state and federal state houses. Outdoor Industry Association educates and lobbies lawmakers to pass sound policies that support our industry’s growth and viability.”7
The outdoor recreation economy generates $887 billion annually in consumer spending. This includes outdoor recreation products, as well as trip and travel spending. It supports 7.6 million jobs. It generates $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.8
The Association acknowledges that outdoor recreation is made possible by America’s public lands and waters. “From our national parks to local green spaces, from alpine lakes to transcontinental rivers, America’s outdoor recreation assets are its citizens’ common trust. Our public lands and waterways belong to every American and they are the backbone of our outdoor recreation economy. [Author’s italics] They hold the promise of prosperity and well-being. It is as much our responsibility to invest in them as it is our right to enjoy them.” They conclude, “National parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments and other public lands and waters account for $45 billion in economic output and about 396,000 jobs nationwide. Outdoor recreation is the economy of the future.”9
The word “conservation” is mentioned but little is said of the Association’s policy or planning on this matter.
Two other industries that contribute to the increased visitation are the tourism and travel industries. They are significant players in that they respond both to the demand and create the demand.
“Tourism in the U.S. is among the three largest employers in 29 states” and “tourists spend more money in the U.S. than in any other country while attracting the third-highest number of tourists after France and Spain.”10
Many factors played a role in the growth of the tourism and travel industries. For example social media, information available on the Internet, and relentless advertising all contributed to the popularity of travel. People tend to have more money and more leisure time than they used to. There were people who flew from New York City to Iceland just to spend the weekend and thought nothing of it. Even the wedding industry seized the opportunity and was quick to popularize the concept of destination weddings in far flung places. Travel became trendy as trips can now be easily planned and booked on the web, and the savvy traveler knows about strategies and discounts and free air-miles. It’s travel made easy.
When Covid-19 settled in and we were forced to change our behaviors, the tourism and travel industries were hit hard. The U.S. Travel Association determined that international travel decreased by 96.4%. However since the beginning of the pandemic, their key consumer sentiment surveys indicated that Americans could be expected to get on the road this summer and head to destinations allowing for physical distancing, such as national parks.11 As predicted, people did.
The superintendent of Mt. Rainier National Park, Chip Jenkins observed that while “Visitation was down this year in March, April and May, it exploded in June through to September at an increase of 4 percent as compared to the same time last year.12 Considering that there was no international travel to speak in this period, this means that the number of domestic visitors has risen significantly above pre-pandemic levels.
Other public lands areas reported similar observations.
The U.S. Travel Association has developed a large number of tools including the National Parks Dashboard established in partnership with Rove Marketing and Uber Media. This dashboard “monitors daily mobile devices across various points of interest at sample U.S. National Parks and National Park Sites. The data provides a representative sample of total visitations to the parks, and offers insights on recent growth trends as well as origin cities and driving distances of recent visitors.” 13 The data also tracks the recovery of the domestic travel market from the Covid-19 pandemic, is updated every Thursday and provides information from January 31, 2020 onward. The growth of these industries raises some serious questions for the future of public lands. Should anyone be worried that public lands are considered to be the backbone of the outdoor recreation economy? And that the outdoor recreation, travel, and tourism industries appear to be positioning themselves to be an important component of the entire U.S. economy?
The problem of too many feet ‒ causes and consequences
Closely tied to the growth of the Outdoor Recreation Industries are the sales of outdoor recreation gear and equipment. The ever evolving technology brings us new and improved camping gear, increasingly capable mountain bikes, e-bikes, vehicles, ATVs, motorcycles and so on.
In the eyes of some, the extractive industries and other commercial developments may be getting too close to the borders of public lands. But the outdoor recreation, travel and tourism industries promote adventures right into the heart of public lands. Touring companies, backcountry guides, ATV groups, Jeep clubs, groups of modified trucks, and motorcycle groups have taken to backcountry roads with enthusiasm.
People want to go to all the interesting places that they have read about on the Internet. They’ve probably seen the endless stream of selfies featuring joyful friends in beautiful places. Among the more recent trends are the travel and tourism bloggers and influencers, two of whom lost their young lives in Yosemite NP, in October 2018, while in the process of taking a selfie for posting on social media.
The amount of information now available on the Internet has exploded exponentially and opened up places that were once known only to locals. A 2018 article in the Guardian tells the story of Horseshoe Bend, near Page, AZ. Bill Diak, a Page resident for 38 years, observed that “With the invention of the cellphone, things changed overnight.” Visitation grew from a few thousand annual visitors historically to 100,000 in 2010 – the year Instagram was launched. Visitation [in 2018] was expected to reach 2 million.14
“Social media is the number one driver,” said Maschelle Zia, who manages Horseshoe Bend for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for the iconic photo.”15
Yellowstone National Park (NP), Yosemite NP, Zion NP, the Grand Canyon NP, Arches NP and Acadia NP are among the national parks struggling with results of overcrowding. The obvious issues include noise, air and light pollution, increasing numbers of illegal paths and trails in iconic places, fewer places where visitors can experience silence and solitude, and traffic congestion.
The impact of increasing use of mountain bikes and motorized vehicles is eroding some areas at an alarming rate. Narrow trails that used to accommodate the contemplative hiker are becoming points of conflict with mountain bikers. Still another issue is the destruction of cultural and archeological sites that may inadvertently occur when vehicular traffic goes off road or too many people visit a popular site.
Issues that are less obvious to members of the public arise from limited funding for the day to day operations of public lands. Increasing visitation requires an increase in services and staffing. Serious incidents requiring medical intervention, transportation by ambulance, or evacuation by air, are increasing. So are the numbers of Search and Rescue incidents.
Another issue resulting from an increase in visitation is the negative impact on wildlife. In a recent interview, William Sloan, a National Park Service Wildlife Biologist said: “I have studied bighorn sheep in desert parks for many decades and have obtained data showing that when an area gets too crowded with people, the bighorns start to avoid these areas. But that also means they are moving to areas with less suitable habitat for them, which in turn impact their pregnancies, the ewes’ ability to carry and lactate. As visitation increases, it will undoubtedly negatively impact wildlife.”16
Sloan continued, “On lands where ATV use is permitted, the constant din becomes a factor. The sheep do habituate but they are ‘alerting’ more frequently which cuts into their foraging time and that in turn affects their nutrient intake, their health, and their well-being. This will impact the survival rate of the sheep.” With concern and passion audible in his voice, he had one more point to make: “If the visitation continues to increase like this, we are going to lose the parks and their wildlife. I believe that we are past the tipping point. But we need to collaborate and stand up for this.”17
There are many issues that arise when visitors have little knowledge of how to interact with wildlife. Visitors with good intentions enjoy feeding wildlife while not being aware that this is to the detriment of the animals and can lead to their death. Breaching the boundaries of wild animals to take photographs or videos has also led to incidents threatening the safety of both visitors and the animals.
Another rather difficult and often contentious issue involves a segment of the population who view public lands primarily as places to recreate or for entertainment. The prevailing sentiment among some is, “These are public lands, these are our lands, and therefore we are free to do what we want.” In The Hour of Land Terry Tempest Williams asks: “I sometimes wonder whether these special landscapes now appear as ‘pop-up parks,’ a spot of entertainment and commerce instead of an unfolding geography.” (p. 62) A park visitor wondered about yet another issue, “Why does everything need to be taken over for sport?”18
On October 8, 2020, the Washington Tourism Alliance held the Washington State Tourism Conference ‒ using Zoom ‒ that included a panel discussion on The Future of Outdoor Tourism. One of the issues participants grappled with was the importance of recreating responsibly ‒ i.e. being aware of the need to take care of the land ‒ and the pressing need to get that message out to the public.
One of the panel members, Jon Snyder, Senior Policy Advisor to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, commented on how pressing this need is, “This summer has been like time travel. We got to see five years in the future about what the demand is going to be.”19
Another member of this panel, Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, commented that “We’ve seen an unprecedented number of people recreate [this summer]. We’ve also seen an unprecedented number of people recreate who do not know the rules of the roads or trails. As a result we’ve had to deal with more issues and challenges than we’ve ever had – not only the increase in users, which we want, but an increased number of abusers. Our message to the public needs to be that we don’t want you to stop using these lands and enjoy them but we want you to do this in a way to keep you safe, to keep others safe, and help steward these lands for the long term.”20
Carla Jellum, Assistant Professor at Central Washington University, teaches Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management. She echoed the panel’s observations and said “The pressures on public lands, especially those closer to urban areas, are enormous. Many people believe that they have the right to go to public lands but do not know how. There is a brand new generation of people who are not educated about public lands and the use of them.” She continued, “The focus tends to be on the economy and industry. They are seen as the growth industries. That trend is not going away. Education needs to focus on the WHY of preservation and conservation.21
Politics and Political Winds
Meanwhile it should not be forgotten that public lands are administered at the top by political appointees and are vulnerable to the ideology and dictates of whichever political party is in power at the time.
Large powerful industries and politics walk hand-in-hand, especially when economic growth is seen as a priority. Unfortunately, economic growth frequently results in the degradation of the land, often including public lands. What happened to the National Park System Advisory Board (NAB) in 2017 provides a good example of the public lands’ vulnerability to changes in the administration.
Prior to 2017, the National Park System Advisory Board would provide recommendations about park operations. The Board is “an eighty-year old, congressionally created council with science-backed expertise in public park management.”22 However during 2017 Secretary Zinke refused to meet with them, and recommendations made by the board were ignored.
In January 2018, all twelve members resigned in protest over the Trump administration policies that are destroying the National Park system.”23 Especially frustrating to Board members were “the significant rollbacks and destruction of key policies that the Board helped implement, especially those affecting climate change, science, and funding.”24 The board members were of the opinion that the destruction affects the future of the National Parks.
Dr. Margaret (Meg) Wheatley was one of the board members who experienced changeable wind directions firsthand. She was a board member
from 2010 until January 2018 when she resigned.
In an interview with Dr. Wheatley on February 27, 2020, she discussed her membership on another independent commission called the Second Century Commission, and convened by the National Parks Conservation Association. This commission was charged with developing a 21st century vision for the National Park Service, and during one year of work developed a number of recommendations. These included strategies to: “strengthen education, reduce impacts of climate change, provide meaningful opportunities for young people, support a healthier and more interconnected citizenry, preserve extraordinary places that reflect our diverse national experience, and safeguard our life-sustaining natural heritage on land and sea.”25
Dr. Wheatley explained that, “With the election of Trump, the strategies recommended by the Second Century Commission were wiped out in his first month in office. He completely destroyed the initiatives. Now they want to privatize public lands; they are being sold off at a tremendous rate.”26 Such rapid and unexpected changes in plans and priorities impact not only the national parks but the ability of all public lands managers to soundly manage these lands and to deal with significantly increased visitation. In addition when the integrity of public lands is affected, the visitor experience is affected.
Dr. Wheatley expressed serious concern about the significant increase in visitation, “When so many people visit parks and other public lands there are no peaceful experiences or experiences of wilderness. There are only long lines of people. The state of Utah determined two weeks ago that there would be no restriction allowed on the number of visitors to the parks. But they did not provide or suggest additional funding to deal with the influx of visitors.”27
Dr. Wheatley also touched on the need for education, “We need to consider why do people want parks? These are a treasure but when you have a population that only wants to use parks and does not know about stewardship, that becomes an issue.”28
Considering everything that has been discussed thus far, other but no less significant issues arise.
More than half the human population now lives in cities and urban areas. We have created an artificial human world where it is easy for the residents to conclude that life is about us humans. Consequently we tend to view the natural world through anthropocentric lenses while at the same time having less and less knowledge of the land and of its natural cycles.
We talk about conservation and preservation, but even this is from the human point of view in terms of what is good for us, for our mental and physical health, for our wellbeing, and our economy. Discussion about the needs of the land and all that lives there does take place but mostly among those who are environmentally inclined.
When attempting to manage public lands, we talk about “carrying capacity” but we do not know how to establish that until after we have reached a tipping point. We honestly do not know how many visitors a place can accommodate without being destroyed until after we see the destruction. We cannot discern where the tipping points are until we have reached them. Human knowledge about “tipping points” and “carrying capacity” is limited especially when we do not fully understand the natural cycles that are involved.
The industries described in this article are much bigger, richer, and much more powerful than all the environmental groups combined. Their principal motivations are obviously for profit. Beyond this, there are the interests of small businesses and individuals to be considered as well. Someone whose concern is with how to financially manage the daily demands of life and living, or what to do about serous health issues, cannot really be expected to worry about the carrying capacity of Yosemite NP, or how to address the need for additional paved parking in Arches NP.
This complex web of issues begs a set of questions now more urgent than ever; so much has been compromised and lost already. Can there be a balance between our desire to use public lands for the pursuit of our own pleasure and commercial purposes, while addressing the importance of these places from a biocentric perspective, for the health of all life on our planet? What will be our priority?
Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. She has authored a number of articles in the Desert Report previously and has completed a book about the flash flood of October 2015.References may be found in the Notes section of the Desert Report website at www.desertreport.org.