Large Crowd Austin , Texas Greenbelt Summer Fun Barton Creek
And across the country, officials are grappling with solutions to address an uptick in visitors and the stressors that come from it as they approach what will likely be another popular season for public lands. (Photo: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/iStock)

How Public Lands Plan to Deal with Crowds This Summer

Permits, education, and increased fees are all on the table as possible solutions

Large Crowd Austin , Texas Greenbelt Summer Fun Barton Creek

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While hiking in the Adirondacks earlier last year, I came upon a scared teenage boy who was lost in the High Peaks Wilderness. He and some friends were home from school and bored during the early months of the pandemic, so they decided to do the 15-mile trek up Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State, at 5,344 feet tall. This is a hike suited for experienced adventurers, and this kid did not fit that description: he didn’t have proper layers and had no food, water, or headlamp as the sun was setting. He was disoriented, likely due to exhaustion and mild dehydration. Fortunately, we were only a few miles from the trailhead at that point. I was able to reunite him with his group and bypass a potentially dangerous situation.

That encounter is just one of countless examples of unprepared and uninformed hikers heading into the Adirondacks and other wilderness areas around the country. According to the American Hiking Society, trail usage saw an increase of 200 percent in U.S. cities as Americans looked to the outdoors to relieve their pandemic-induced cabin fever. But with more hikers come more search and rescues. The Adirondack Park wasn’t the only region that experienced this trend—the Seattle Times recently reported that Mount Rainier National Park rangers completed more search and rescues in 2020 than in any of the previous five years. Texas Monthly cited that two parks in that state, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, saw a 50 percent increase in SAR operations last year. Officials from all of these areas said an influx of inexperienced hikers, many unprepared for the challenging terrain or quickly changing weather conditions, contributed to the problem. 

The crowds also created challenges that went beyond safety and into the realm of conservation management. Kayla White, stewardship manager for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), spotted people illegally camping and starting campfires at restricted elevations, not storing food properly, and leaving human waste and food scraps that don’t degrade well at higher elevations, like fruit peels and pistachio shells. To ensure more hiker safety and environmental management, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group recently called for more state resources and funding for real-time data collection. Across the country, officials are grappling with solutions to address an uptick in visitors and the stressors that come from it as they approach what will likely be another popular season for public lands.  

Pressures to Permit 

A few government agencies have implemented permit systems, some of which were prompted by the pandemic, that will remain or go into effect this year. Last August, U.S. Forest Service officials announced the reinstatement on September 1 of a free day-use permit system for entering three wilderness areas in the San Bernardino National Forest

According to public affairs officer Zachary Behrens, these plans had already been in the works prior to 2020 as interest in the trails leading to some of the tallest peaks in Southern California was growing. But when visitation exploded last spring and parking lots began filling up at 6 A.M., spurring illegal parking and spillover into surrounding neighborhoods, those plans were pushed through. The Forest Service never got to see the permit system in action, because the whole national forest closed the following week due to wildfires, but the agency still intends to use the new system this summer.

As city dwellers looked to escape the pandemic, Montana became a hot spot. In November, the New York Times reported that Bozeman, a city of 50,000 people, is projected to add another 27,000 residents by 2045. The influx of temporary visitors and prospective homeowners translated to some of the busiest months on record for many of the state’s public lands. This was especially the case along the Madison River, a world-class fly-fishing tributary, which saw crowded parking lots, litter, and trampled banks. Last year’s crowding prompted the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to enforce quotas on the number of commercial fishing and rafting trips and restrict guide access on some sections on certain days of the week.

Many states were simply overrun by local and regional residents looking to get outside. Jim Bryson, deputy commissioner of Tennessee Parks and Conservation, told the Tennessean last May that all state parks were seeing huge numbers, with some at capacity and others 30 percent to 40 percent beyond capacity. One of its most popular, Cummins Falls State Park, located 90 minutes east of Nashville, reopened last May with a permit system that remains in place. Officials will continue to limit access to the park’s gorge, a popular swimming destination, to 150 visitors per day and cars within the park to 50.

Betting on Education

A permit system didn’t necessarily spare the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from similar problems. For decades, the U.S. Forest Service has required permits to enter the pristine area within the Superior National Forest. But after last season saw unprecedented visitation and the associated challenges, including incidents of campers cutting live trees for firewood and the improper disposal of human waste, officials will now demand that people complete a mandatory online education program about Leave No Trace guidelines before they’re able to obtain permits. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), which experienced a 30 percent increase in overall visitation last year, is also turning to education initiatives to ease overuse issues. In October, the agency signed a partnership agreement with the conservation organization Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to educate people on how to recreate responsibly. “We’ve always been including their messages in park materials, but this was the first time it was a formalized partnership,” says Bridget Kochel, public information officer for CPW. The partnership will include formal training in Leave No Trace guidelines for CPW staff, more signage throughout the parks, and special educational events. “We’re still shaping what this will look like, with an overall goal of teaching people to recreate responsibly while preserving our outdoors,” Kochel adds.

Hiking Up Fees

Some state agencies are instead taking a fee-based approach to dealing with overcrowding. Utah State Parks, which saw an extra 2 million visitors last year, plans to offset rising operating costs with its first price increase for annual passes in 25 years. In addition to upping the annual pass fee from $75 to $150 for out-of-state travelers last summer, in January the price of annual passes rose from $75 to $100 for Utah residents and from $35 to $50 for those over age 65. 

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) temporarily upped RV and tent camping prices for out-of-state visitors last August with the dual purpose of managing numbers and encouraging travelers to stick closer to home during the pandemic. Following the policy’s implementation, the number of out-of-state campers at Oregon state parks dropped by 17 percent. However, this might simply reflect a general drop in interstate travel due to the pandemic. While OPRD is no longer imposing the extra fees at this time, the agency will hold a public discussion this summer about whether these measures will become permanent in the future. For now, any out-of-state residents with plans to camp in one of Oregon’s state parks this summer will have to stay tuned. 

What’s to Come 

As is the case in Oregon, many sites and agencies are still in the process of determining this season’s management based on last year’s numbers. Despite a 28 percent drop in overall visitation to national parks in 2020 compared to the previous year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw an increase despite a 46-day closure last spring and August’s partial closures, with numbers passing 12 million for the second time in its history. Officials took the first step in mitigating these numbers by hosting a series of virtual workshops last fall, during which participants provided input on their ideal park experiences and contributed ideas for improving management and access. Officials also solicited comments via an online form and traditional mail. Now, after collecting thousands of suggestions, they plan to announce a new pilot program to pursue congestion management within the next several weeks, said Superintendent Cassius Cash in a statement

The future of Adirondack Park also remains uncertain. Even before the pandemic, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics had identified the High Peaks Wilderness, in particular, as a hot spot experiencing tremendous overuse impacts. This month, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the High Peaks Advisory Group released a long-awaited study that calls for more state resources and funding for real-time data collection, as well as the hiring of more forest rangers and other management staff. While concrete details are yet to be determined, possibilities include launching a parking pass system, expanding the shuttle system to serve several parking lot hubs where visitors could access trail information, and investing in education programs that teach Leave No Trace ethics and regulations. 

While permits, fees, and education all have the potential to encourage hikers to be more prepared and environmentally aware, there’s really no substitute for experience. Despite the issues that arise from overvisitation of public lands, White of the ADK views this exploding interest in the outdoors as a tremendously positive development. “It’s an amazing opportunity to educate hikers and enlist their help in protecting this resource,” she says.