Too much tourism chips away at America’s parks

By Opinions Editor

Despite our obsession with technology and urban sprawl, people have always been attracted to the beauty in nature. Every year, millions of people flock to Yellowstone National Park, the White Cliffs of Dover, Mount Everest and other tourist meccas, but these assets are beginning to show wear from the constant traffic. To preserve the natural wonders of the world—and the money they attract—governments need to pay more attention to what is happening to their national treasures.

Reports that 13 Sherpa guides were killed on the slopes of Mount Everest in an April 18 avalanche prompted scrutiny of the effects of constant tourism on the mountain. The popularity of climbing Everest has grown exponentially—5,742 people attempted ascents in the 20 years from 1990–2009, more than triple the number of attempts from 1950–1989, according to the Himalayan Database. 

Excessive tourism could result in more avalanches and damage to the mountain. In a 2012 report to UNESCO, the Nepalese government expressed concern about illegal trails forged across the wilderness and controversial plans to continue developing a resort on the mountain. Disturbing delicately balanced environments like the steep sides of Everest could cause drastic changes. That could incite more natural disasters like the deadly avalanche.

Everest isn’t the only place governments need to watch. If parks in the U.S. do not impose stricter controls on access and use, places like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon could become so worn down that they would be severely despoiled. Limiting the number of annual sojourns to each natural wonder would allow the agencies overseeing them to more closely track visitors and enforce stronger conservation policies. If the National Park Service were to impose mandatory visitor registration and caps on the number of entries, it could hold guests more accountable for damage to the parks. Visitors currently pay to enter, but their activity inside is fairly autonomous. For example, at the Grand Canyon, people pay to drive up to the rim but can then hike down without many restrictions aside from warnings not to stray from the designated trail. 

In wide-open wilderness spaces such as Yellowstone, tourists use snowmobiles in the winter, releasing incredible amounts of pollution into the woods and disturbing the wildlife, according to the NPS. The park allows snowmobile use because it is the most efficient way to navigate the enormous, largely roadless park, but it is now reconsidering because of the detrimental effects of excessive snowmobile use. 

In Grand Canyon National Park, the noise from the increasingly popular helicopter tours ricochets around the canyon walls and interrupts the serene areas many birds and mountain goats enjoy. Although some restrictions have been imposed on these tours, such as reducing how much of  airspace they can use, it is not enough to significantly impact the noise pollution, according to a 2012 analysis by Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Many naturalists complain about damage to the great caves of the U.S., such as the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, where tourists chip off parts of the magnificent stalactites to keep in a box on their mantelpieces at home.

Preserving national parks would also be good for the economy. Unlike many other developed countries, the U.S. is still largely wild and acclaimed internationally for beautiful landscapes. More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone annually, and more than 4 million visit the Grand Canyon, according to the National Park Service. Many of those visitors come from overseas, spending money on goods and services that stay in the U.S. and create jobs. Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and its surrounding highways generated nearly $492 million in revenue for the state and federal governments, according to a March 3 announcement from the NPS. That revenue costs the U.S. nothing in tariffs and is entirely sustainable. Parks create lasting jobs and provide state income that might not otherwise be available.

Parks are huge revenue sources, but they are also valuable for ecological reasons that depend on responsible use. America’s natural spaces are breeding grounds for many endangered species and provide a backdrop for biomes that can be used to study environmental events; seismologists watch the activity in Yellowstone to gauge potential earthquakes in California and geologists make regular visits to the Grand Canyon and the Badlands in South Dakota to unravel the Earth’s origin by studying rock layers. Excessive tourism could damage the natural environment, interrupting the conditions scientists need to learn more about the world. To combat unconscious damage, all visitors should be briefed on proper conduct; if damage is discovered later, parks could retain records of who visited and impose fines. Such consequences could deter people from carelessly breaking branches from majestic redwood trees or chipping off chunks of fragile rock as souvenirs. 

If the current trend of overtourism with little accountability continues, the natural wonders America boasts will be seriously impaired by the time the next generation arrives. The U.S. government should take heed of what is happening to Mount Everest and preserve its own parks before too much tourism begins to take its toll on the splendors that make this country the envy of the world.