Increasing Tourism Threatens National Parks’ Stability

by Noah Tobias | July 26, 2021

Environmental Justice word cloud

Thousands of organisms walk along the trails of national parks, including more than 400 endangered species. But as tourism grows, the bulk of visitors flooding in threatens to destabilize the abundance and diversity of these treasured landscapes.

In 2019, more than 324 million people visited national parks in the lower 48 states. To grasp the scale of this, picture the entire population of the United States moving through a combined area smaller than Mississippi. The impacts of half a billion feet treading down well-worn trails can be disastrous, and the parks are simply too small and too under-resourced to withstand the ecological stress inflicted by all of their visitors.

It is important to note that our national parks are not pristine places frozen in time – people lived within them for generations and were forcibly displaced in the construction of this country. The parks’ original inhabitants lived sustainably, without placing an impossible burden on their home. 

Today, though, as ever-increasing groups of people flood into these beautiful spaces, air and water pollution often follow close behind. Traffic jams and long wait times frustrate visitors, and human-wildlife conflicts threaten the lives of tourists and animals alike. Visitors often tread social trails into the land and damage sensitive plants, and waste pollutes the waterways and landscapes animals depend upon.

More visitors, smaller budget

The 2021 budget for the national park system – confirmed by the Trump administration – approved under $3 billion in appropriations, 8% less than last year’s figure. But although the number of visitors fell in 2020, parks are likely to see a massive increase this year, as visitation hours increase and travel restrictions are dropped. Without adequate funding, park employees will be hard-pressed to handle the volume of tourists they’re likely to encounter.

Lawmakers attempted to fill some of the gaps by passing the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides $9 billion over five years for maintenance. The act was hailed as “a conservationist’s dream” and addresses several key issues within the park system. However, its scope is limited to infrastructure and conservation, not to personnel, leaving understaffed rangers with little to alleviate their workload (which includes waste disposal, wildlife management, and interacting with the public).


In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

Iroquois maxim

Moving forward

Our parks’ increasing popularity is a welcome sign. As more people flood into nature, the public will increasingly appreciate the value of wild places. It goes against the spirit of natural parks – places for anyone, no matter their story, to enjoy the beauty and bounty of the wild – to limit the number of visitors that may enter. Yet to preserve these spaces, we need to ensure that they have the time and space to heal.

A number of national parks are managing attendance this summer via a reservation system. To enter Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia, and more, visitors will need to buy day-use or camping passes. Many of the parks that have implemented the system host endangered species, so conservation has become a major priority.

Although the reservation requirement favors those who have consistent access to the internet, it is one of the most reliable ways to ensure parks can withstand the burden visitors place on them, and it should be expanded across the national park system. Parks might also consider implementing a sliding-scale day pass fee, a fraction of the cost of a hotel room, to secure reliable funding for staffing and infrastructure needs.

We should take care to not exclude disadvantaged groups, particularly BIPOC communities, from these unique spaces, and imposing costs on visitors might do just that. To remedy this, we have a few options. Some thinkers have proposed returning control of park administration to Native Americans. Other ideas, many of which were outlined in a 2017 presidential memorandum, include implementing broader outreach programs for diverse communities, waiving fees for BIPOC groups, and forging new partnerships with state, local, tribal, and private partners to expand National Park access to all Americans. 

As one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, the U.S. has a responsibility to take care of our unique creatures. To that end, we must preserve the stability and security of our national parks, for now and for generations to come. And we must balance the needs of sensitive ecosystems with the requirements of justice.


Photo of Mt. Rainer by Stephanie Bergeron, Unsplash

Photo of Yosemite National Park by Brittney Burnett, Unsplash


Noah Tobias

Noah Tobias

Noah is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies Environmental Science and Global Studies. He loves exploring the stories behind species conservation, environmental injustice, land use, and more.

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