July 28, 2021
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, convened a hearing to examine the effects of overcrowding in many National Parks across the country – and explore solutions to the challenge. From Acadia to Yellowstone and points between, the National Park Service is seeing a spike in visitors that is straining resources and infrastructure, putting the country in a position where Chairman King believes we’re at risk of “loving our parks to death.” During the hearing, Chairman King questioned witnesses on ways to mitigate these effects without inhibiting access to these national treasures, with potential approaches including increased staffing, reservation systems for top attractions, and reducing vehicle traffic.
“As vaccine rates continue to rise across the country, Americans who have been stuck inside for a year look for outdoor recreation. We're having a record breaking year at many of our national parks. Even as international visitation is down due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, visitation numbers at our most iconic parks like Glacier, Acadia, and Yosemite are already at all-time highs,” said Chairman King in his opening statement. “It's great to see so many Americans are taking advantage of these parks. That is, after all, why we protect these lands in the first place. However, at the same time, we must recognize that overcrowding in the parks, itself, can degrade the natural resources and wildlife that these units are designed to protect. We can accidentally love our parks to death. Overcrowding can also significantly harm the visitor experience and strain the resources of gateway communities, souring what should be a once in a lifetime vacation. Watching the sun rise from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a wonderful experience. Staring at the tail lights of the car in front of you as you're trying to get up the mountain and find a parking place? Not so much.”
During Senator King’s opening statement, he highlighted several options of solutions to stimulate discussion.
· RESERVATIONS. On encouraging visitation to lesser known parks, Senator King says: “Not all park units have seen the same astronomical growth that is impacting our better-known parks…we should explore opportunities to highlight these lesser known jewels, including reviewing the National Park Service’s restrictions on advertising. Timed tickets and reservation systems are also options that are increasingly being considered and put into place, if not for entire parks, at least at some of the most crowded sites within parks. Many national park units have had de facto reservation systems for years – the Statue of Liberty, for example. These systems can help protect public lands and support high quality visitor experiences. But they also present challenges that we must consider. It's important to ensure that reservation systems do not lock out visitors. America's national parks are for everyone and should remain accessible as possible to all.”
· STAFFING AND MORALE. On ensuring that staffing at National Parks can meet visitation demand, Senator King refers to recent employment data: “Staffing is also an issue that should be examined, as staffing at the national parks has not kept pace with the growth in visitors. More visitors have stretched our rangers and staff thin and made park operations more challenging on a day-to-day basis. This chart is a graphic representation of exactly what I just noted. The green ‘mountain’ is the visitation at Yellowstone; the red dotted line is staff levels. So as you can see, the staff levels are relatively fixed and the visitation has almost doubled, or more than doubled. So this is an indication of the problem of the static staff versus the astronomical growth in visitation. Through the Great American Outdoors Act, this committee has done significant work to ensure that the capital facility maintenance backlog is being addressed. We may now need to turn our attention to the operations side of the ledger.”
· ALTERING TRAFFIC PATTERNS. On vehicle and traffic congestion, Senator King says: “Vehicle limitations are also something that must be considered. Often, we talk about too many people, but actually we're talking about too many cars. There are alternatives for us to look at. For example, many years ago, one of my sons and I had the opportunity to visit the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland, where the gateway community is entirely free of private automobiles. They only have golf carts and horse drawn carts. And everyone that goes to the town gets there via a train from a station about 20 miles away where there's a very large parking lot. So there are no automobiles in the town whatsoever – and it works. Additional investments in transit options, both through free visitor shuttles and private partners, could allow us to continue growing the number of people in parks while limiting vehicle traffic.”
Among those who appeared before the committee were Kevin Schneider, Superintendent, Acadia National Park; Michael Reynolds, Regional Director, Interior Regions 6, 7, & 8, National Park Service; Kristen Brengel, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, National Parks Conservation Association; and Kevin Gartland, Executive Director, Whitefish Chamber of Commerce.
Senator King is among the Senate’s most prominent voices advocating for public lands and encouraging outdoor recreation. As Chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee, Senator King convened a hearing to examine the current state of the National Park System – focusing on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on National Park Service (NPS) operations, staff, visitation, and facilities. In June, Senator King joined the Maine Delegation and Governor Janet Mills to welcome U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to Acadia National Park to see proposed, ongoing, and completed maintenance projects.
Senator King helped lead the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) into law; the legislation includes the Restore Our Parks Act – a bill led in part by Senator King – and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Permanent Funding Act. The historic legislative package continues Senator King’s career-long focus on conservation efforts, dating back to his work prior to running for elected office through his years as Governor and his service in the Senate. Over the course of his time in the Blaine House, Governor King was responsible for conserving more land across Maine than all Governors before him combined. In recognition of his lifetime of environmental advocacy, Senator King was recently awarded the inaugural National Park Foundation (NPF) “Hero” Award.