Carry On

Trampled Plants & Stressed-Out Wildlife — What Have We Done To The Great Outdoors?

I live within a block of a small but beautiful park in New York City. The place has been a refuge during the pandemic: groups of friends hosted cold-weather picnics, kids attended bundled-up birthday parties, and I took many very long, very necessary walks with my dog through the park and beyond. We all needed to get out of our homes; the outdoors felt like the only other place that was safe.
Now, the weather’s getting warmer, and those sporadic, chilly park get-togethers are transforming into bustling crowds; even if vaccinated, many people are not yet comfortable doing indoor activities, taking over outdoor recreation areas instead. It’s beautiful to see everyone so happy, emerging like butterflies from their wintery cocoons, as they gather in the sunny park and cherish the patches of nature we’re so lucky to have access to amid the densely packed city streets. But it’s troubling, as well: NYC parks were crushed by budget cuts this year, making it more difficult to battle the wear and tear inflicted by the happy hordes. After a particularly beautiful spring weekend, it’s typical to see garbage cans overflowing the following Monday morning, the understandable but unfortunate detritus of a weekend’s worth of outdoor partying.
This is not a New York City phenomenon. It’s happening nationwide. Last summer, National and State Parks were deluged by otherwise homebound Americans desperate for some movement and fresh air; this summer, the number of parkgoers is expected to grow even further, as more people in the U.S. are vaccinated and fewer are ill, but most can’t or won’t take urban or international vacations just yet. This means that the parks will be inundated with record numbers of visitors both enjoying beautiful National Parks, State Parks, and other public land areas — and causing destruction in them.
“It’s crazy,” says Joel Hartter, the director of the new Outdoor Recreation Economy program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a former park ranger. He notes that, while outdoor use was on the rise pre-Covid, the pandemic has only skyrocketed interest in the great outdoors. “With Covid, there was some constriction of use. But now, with vaccinations — I mean, they are completely booked. So we are going to see continued utilization of these places, and we’re going to see continued crowding of these places.”
In 2020, when it was not totally clear how the virus was transmitted and how much safer we were outside than inside, many public lands were closed or had extremely limited entry. These closures make for some interesting data on visitation, historically speaking. Out of 423 National Parks, 66 were closed for at least two months of the year, with many others sporadically closed or with severely reduced entries. Overall, the National Park Service saw a 30 percent drop in visitors for the year.
Nevertheless, people with nothing else to do thronged outdoor recreation areas that were open, threatening local wildlife, plantlife, and communities. The U.S. Forest Service had to temporarily shut down access to Santa Paula Canyon in Ventura County, California, for example, as desperate city folk mobbed the parks, trampled off trails, littered, and otherwise caused destruction in the area.
Hartter says that tourism to National and State Parks surged during the warm months of 2020, and is expected to grow even more this year. Rocky Mountain National Park, which is adjacent to Boulder, Colorado, has seen a 30 percent increase in use in the past year, he says, while other nearby parks and recreation areas have seen up to 133 percent use increase. 
It’s going to be even more intense in 2021. “We have seen an increased interest from the public in visiting the state parks over the past year, and with restrictions fully lifted, we anticipate that we will have a very busy summer,” a spokesperson for Arizona State Parks & Trails. “We do see that more people are exploring their home state rather than making longer trips.”
Hipcamp, a website for finding and booking campsites, says it’s seen a 200 percent jump in reservations so far this spring compared to the same time last year, and it expects the trend to continue throughout the summer. And a spokesperson for Campendium, an online community for RVers that offers reviews and information about the best campgrounds across the United States, says the growing interest in camping this year is “nuts.” Searches for information about Yellowstone, for example, is up 106 percent; Glacier National Park is up 98 percent; Badlands National Park is up 124 percent. “There is also a surge of interest in free camping near national parks,” the spokesperson tells Refinery29. 
Data I accessed from Utah State Parks found that even in March of this year, visitation to State Parks skyrocketed compared to March 2019. Dead Horse Point State Park, for example, saw 56,433 visitors in 2019; in 2021, that number doubled, to 110,216. Other Utah State Parks, such as the Great Salt Lake Marina State Park, saw similar hordes this March, even though the weather in much of Utah was still cool at the time; Salt Lake’s average high in March is 53 degrees, which is bearable but not exactly balmy. As summer progresses, that temperature — and its attendant sun seekers — will only continue to rise.
Heather Gibson, a professor of tourism, hospitality, and event management at the University of Florida, recently conducted a study about how well people adhered to social distancing on hiking trails. She found interesting data points on how social distancing, in turn, impacted the trails and parks. “We did find that people, particularly on the narrower trails, were going off trail” to maintain social distancing, she says. “After a while, ecological damage occurs because trails are there for a reason.”
She also notes one critical change with visitors over the past year versus in prior years: It’s a lot of people who are uneducated about how to behave in parks, causing additional damage or getting themselves in trouble as a result. Multiple bison attacks occurred last year across the Western United States, including one woman who was attacked by an adult in the herd when she approached a calf — a dangerous mistake with any wild animal, let alone an animal that weighs up to 2,000 pounds and has large, sharp horns protruding from its forehead. 
The biggest problem many parks are facing, according to Gibson, is the lack of parking space for visitors’ cars. At some parks, such as Snowdonia National Park in Gibson’s native United Kingdom, “there weren't enough parking spaces. So people were parking all over the edges of the roads, the verges.” This damages the sides of the roads and the plant life growing there, she says. Similarly, Hartter notes that he’s heard about incidents of conflict and “a lot of impatience” due to limited parking spots and space on the trails.
At Egmont Key State Park in Tampa Bay, Florida, visitation is already equal to pre-pandemic levels, and is projecting a record turnout this summer, according to Brooke Hansen, the director of the Sustainable Tourism Program at the University of South Florida. “We have concerns with so many more first-time boaters and other visitors to the island, who are not aware it is a National Wildlife Refuge where pets are not allowed in order to safeguard the unique animal and bird populations on the key.”
In a 2021 study on the impact of the pandemic on park management and visitor attendance, most of the rangers surveyed by the researchers mentioned that many of the tourists they encountered were clearly new to camping and other outdoor activities, so had no idea how to interact in the parks. “We experienced a huge number of violations related to protection of our resources related to activities. We were seeing a lot of things like people driving off road, people doing dispersed camping within the national parks, dogs off leash, dogs period in areas that they should not have been in,” one study participant said. “By the end of June, in a normal year, we would have issued somewhere between 20 and 25 citations. This year, by the end of June, we had issued 75 citations.”
Many of the parks, the study notes, were dramatically unprepared to deal with 2020’s influx of uneducated visitors. This year, though, parks are implementing new strategies to manage the throngs of eager tourists intent on a little fresh air and some exciting photos for their Instagram accounts.
At Egmont Key State Park, “we’re implementing an interactive touchscreen to educate visitors about the island’s ecology and key species such as the gopher tortoises,” says Hansen, as well as placing QR codes throughout the park so visitors have access to information on-the-go. Other parks need to devise similar tools, as well as complete one particularly critical task: hire more rangers and park staff. “Parks across the country have witnessed significant layoffs during the pandemic which led to a decrease in monitoring cultural and natural sites,” she says. “Parks need to immediately re-staff at pre-pandemic levels, if not more, and implement better monitoring of human impacts on wildlife and ecosystems.”
Gibson maintains that it’s crucial people understand they shouldn’t feed any wildlife, even including geese and ducks, nor get too close to them for any reason — it stresses out the animal and, as in the case with the numerous bison attacks, the animal might decide to “fight back.” 
Being outside, especially in nature, is very good for your mental and physical health. After more than a year cooped up in your stuffy apartment, camping, hiking, swimming, and other outdoor activities might be just what the doctor ordered. But just like every house has rules, so do parks and other recreation areas — home to a diverse blend of flora and fauna that can’t sustain too many inconsiderate guests. So before you get your much-needed sun and air, read up on what the rangers and other park staff require from visitors not only for your own safety, but also for that of everything else that makes the park their home.

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