Yellowstone had 1m visitors in July alone. That's unsustainable for US national parks

Photograph: Matthew Brown/AP

National parks have been called America’s best idea, and for good reason. Unlike the castles and cathedrals of Europe, they belong to everyone. They are democracy writ large, where a people otherwise fiercely devoted to capitalism say: no, not here. Here the meadow does not become a mall. Here we safeguard the beauty and sanctity of nature. Not as a potted plant or a manicured garden, but as vast, wild, largely untrammeled nature. Our original home.

Mountains, canyons, glaciers, forests, rivers, bison, bears, birds and more. National parks provoke and inspire us. They give us stories, educate us, change us. “For my life to matter, for me to do the work I’m meant to do in the world,” the wildlife biologist and author Mary Beth Baptiste writes in her park-inspired memoir Altitude Adjustment, “I have to spend my days in mountains and forests like these, among people committed to their flourishing. And all they ask in return is a simple renunciation of everything I’ve ever known to be true.”

We save national parks so they in turn might save us.

How refreshing that we who can alter any landscape on Earth should leave a few as we found them. And how ironic that we should diminish them.

A century ago, Stephen T Mather, the first director of the US National Park Service, worked hard to create new national parks, and to promote them as part of our national experience. Forget Europe, he said: “See America first.”

Yellowstone, the nation’s – and world’s – premier national park, was established in 1872 to provide what one supportive senator called “a great breathing place for the national lungs”.

It seemed enough … at first. America had its national park, something as original as baseball and the Bill of Rights. Good for us. Now, time to resume the march of capitalism, buying and selling, ditching and damming, felling forests and stringing barbed wire to make the land safe for cattle and sheep. But Yellowstone had power. Soon other parks followed: Yosemite, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Olympic, Zion, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Hawaii Volcanoes, Mount McKinley (Denali), Grand Canyon and more. A magnificent system was born, and began to grow, one that colored the maps and imaginations of people everywhere.

In 1920, when annual visitation to the parks topped 1 million, Mather celebrated. His dream was here to stay.

Fast forward 101 years to this last summer. Mather would have been astounded – chagrined, perhaps – to witness more than 1 million visitors crowd into Yellowstone in July alone.

Bumper to bumper, pandemic-weary people came in search of beauty and open space; shoulder to shoulder, they sought solitude and fresh air. And what did they find? Traffic, litter, crowds, noise, oppressive heat and long lines; America’s lungs congested with what singer-songwriter Greg Brown might call “the beautiful too many”.

“Visit Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky, and many other national parks this crowded summer,” wrote Kurt Repanshek, the founder and editor-in-chief of National Parks Traveler, “and you can see firsthand how the crowds are impacting not just the natural resources in these special places, but literally stomping on the national park experience.”

Several parks have introduced congestion management plans – mostly timed-reservation systems – and now, with summer over, will analyze the results.

The crowding problem has been worsening for decades. In 1978, Congress directed park superintendents to identify visitor carrying capacities. It’s a daunting task, always ongoing.

Testifying before a Senate committee in 2002, Hope Sieck, representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said, “For half a decade now, fresh air has been pumped into ranger booths at the West Entrance to prevent headaches, nausea, burning eyes and other health problems caused by snowmobile exhaust … Instead of a quiet, peaceful winter wonderland, visitors today are welcomed by extreme noise, choking pollution, noxious odors and rangers in respirators.”

In his classic memoir Desert Solitaire, the author Edward Abbey recounts his two summers as a park ranger in Arches (then a national monument, in the 1950s). One day, as he’s “watching the flow of evening over the desert … the birds coming back to life, the shadows rolling for miles over rock and sand to the very base of the brilliant mountains,” he hears a “discordant note”. A jeep. Three dusty men drive up and ask for water. Abbey obliges them. They’re a survey crew, staking out a new road – to be paved, of course – that will accommodate 30 times more visitors than are here now. The head surveyor asks a skeptical Abbey what his answer is to that. Abbey’s reply: “‘Have some more water,’ I said. I had an answer all right but I was saving it for later. I knew that I was dealing with a madman.”

Today, Abbey’s Arches – a place of quiet summer solitude – is gone.

Granted, the National Park Service (NPS) has an impossible mandate – a 1916 “Organic Act” – that says it must conserve the parks and provide for their enjoyment while leaving them “unimpaired” for future generations. The NPS is also starved for money, with a maintenance backlog estimated at $13bn that grows by more than $300m each year. During the disastrous 34-day government shutdown of 2018-19, when the parks remained open but understaffed, visitors died, toilet paper blew like confetti through campgrounds, and off-road vehicles left scars that will take years to heal.

How to fix this?

Increase the NPS budget. If the US can spend roughly $300m a day for 20 years on a war in Afghanistan, it can fix its national parks. Save America first.

In Deb Haaland, we have our first Native American secretary of the interior. If the Senate confirms Charles “Chuck” Sams, a navy veteran and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, we’ll have our first Native American director of the NPS, which could help imbue park management with indigenous sensibilities. A new directive could prioritize the scenic, historic, cultural and ecological integrity of all parks in part by establishing carrying capacities, visitor limits, a national reservation system, electric-powered public transportation, and increased opportunities for the underprivileged.

Many national monuments could be elevated to national parks. Other new parks could be carved from national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. Neighboring state parks could be enlarged, and private lands purchased. All to help take pressure off our existing marquee national parks.

None of this will be easy, or impossible.

Our finest concert halls do not seat people in the aisles or stand them along the walls. They invite us to a later performance.

We love our national parks and want them safeguarded today and tomorrow. It will take sacrifice and patience, democracy writ large.

America’s best idea – made better.

  • A frequent contributor to the Guardian, and a former ranger with the National Park Service, Kim Heacox is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award. He lives in Alaska

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