Reconfigure our National Parks as urban environments?

School is almost out, so it is time to think about retreating to the peace and quiet of our National Parks, right?

Check out these photos from my October 2017 trip to Zion National Park. The parking lot at the park entrance is generally full so you park a few miles away and wait for a shuttle bus, packed to standing-room-only. Then you wait 30-45 minutes to get on a second shuttle bus, within the park, and that too will be standing-room-only. The visitor center features a 20-minute line for “information” next to a sign talking about “wilderness” and how it “has outstanding opportunities for solitude”.

Zion National Park was established in 1919 and I don’t think that any new trails have been built since then. Consequently, once you do get off the shuttle bus, unless you’re planning to do a 15-mile hike, you’ll likely be on a trail that is more crowded than the average Manhattan sidewalk (not more crowded than Times Square, of course, but far more crowded than the sidewalks away from Midtown). See my photos for the typical crowds on a trail in a shoulder season. The monopoly vendors of crummy food enjoyed long lines of customers, the flip side of which was that it was much more time-consuming to purchase food than it would be in Manhattan, even during the Midtown lunch rush.

Currently access to the park is rationed by ability to stand in lines, ability to stand on a packed bus, and tolerance for walking on a jammed trail. (We went to a convention in Las Vegas afterward, attended by nearly 30,000 people, and it seemed far less crowded than the National Park.)

Americans don’t seem to be willing to ration access to this scarce resource by price. See, for example, “National Park Service Reconsiders Steep Fee Increase After Backlash” (nytimes):

A Trump administration proposal to steeply increase entrance fees to the most popular national parks landed with a thud when it was presented in November, and park officials say they are now reconsidering it.

The proposal, which would apply during the peak visitor season to 17 parks including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, called for a $70 fee for noncommercial vehicles, up from $30.

The fee increase seems to be sold as a way of increasing the funds available for maintenance, not as a way to reduce crowds.

Since we aren’t going to reduce the crowds by imposing a higher price and we’re going to continue to grow U.S. population through immigration and incentives to Americans to have more kids, our National Parks are going to end up being more like tourist attractions in Japan or China. Once we accept that we’re going to have Shanghai-style densities, why not reconfigure the parks to be more like Shanghai? Build a denser network of trails where possible. Run robot-driven buses every minute (like the Moscow subway!). Put in high-rise hotels and McDonald’s restaurants that are capable of handling a high volume of customers efficiently. Since we have accepted that our National Parks should be urban environments, why not run them as competent urban environments instead of as pretend wilderness with hour-long waits for the standing-room-only bus and 30-minute waits for a frozen burger?

9 thoughts on “Reconfigure our National Parks as urban environments?

  1. Or we could just add roads and parking lots. Roads are for all practical purposes 1 dimensional, whereas the surface area of the parks are 2 dimensional, so some extra roads and parking lots will not put a dent in the nature experience of most parks. And some new trails, your 99 weeks pf xbox period was indeed a wasted opportunity, imagine all the trails that could have been built by conservation corps 2.0.

  2. If you’re going to ration the resource why by price and not by lottery?

    A lot of these parks already have lotteries for camping, and a lottery would seem to accomplish the goal of rationing resources while not making the resource available only to the wealthy who can afford the “market” price.

    At the same time that people sign up for the lottery, they can be given information about parks that will not be filled to the rim with visitors.

    And build some more parks. Trump has been shrinking parks. (Escalante, Bears Ears)

  3. Zion is pretty close to Las Vegas so it is an easy park to get to and has crowds in certain parts. If you kept driving you could have reached Capital Reef, which was close to empty as was Canyon lands when we visited half a dozen years ago. I found that if you were willing to venture off the main trails, if your kids are old enough to do that, there was a lot of solitude. Also some of the more obscure parks that are hard to get to. The concessions etc. are really crappy but in general our government aims to provide mediocrity to the masses.

  4. Definitely a victim of their own success. Yosemite was $20 before quantitative easing. If $30 made no difference, why not infinity? Future generations will never know Yosemite as I did, 30 years ago, when the population was 1/2 what it is today & the rest of the world didn’t have enough money to travel.

  5. That actually doesn’t look different from the national parks in actual China. The way they do it there is that anything like a trail has been replaced by elevated walkways. All the trails are basically loops and you are at least architecturally discouraged from leaving the paths at any point. Most of the tourism appears to be in the form of organized groups (with flag-holding leaders marshaling people at the beginning and at various points) Definitely not very American in the Teddy Roosevelt sense. Never do you really feel solitude, but the scenery is pretty.
    If you like solitude, bail on the parks and head out into the wilderness. (Or, better yet, the national forests)

  6. My dad worked at Yosemite in the 70’s and it was crushed by people in the Spring and Summer back then as well. Since then there’s even fewer campsites so overnight there’s fewer folks.

    The rule back then was two miles or a thousand feet, do that and you’ve wiped out most tourists.

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