The Park Service’s centennial took a toll

While flashing back to an impossibly busy summer, Kathleen Gonder describes Bryce Canyon National Park as if it had been under siege: “We’re scrambling just to be able to provide infrastructure — and that means the basics, like clean restrooms and parking,” said Gonder, who is chief of interpretation at the Utah park famous for its colorful, spike-like geological formations called hoodoos.

At 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon is among the smallest of the national parks, but it currently ranks 11th in visitation. More than 2.3 million people, and counting, have flocked to the park. Sixty percent of that traffic happened between June and September.

Bryce Canyon certainly was not alone. Its yearlong 100th birthday celebration exposed the National Park Service — at least major, visible parts of it — as a system bursting at the seams.

The agency’s 59 parks, which include national gems like Zion and Acadia, in Maine, are ahead of last year’s pace by 6.5 million visits, the equivalent of the population of Indiana. Thirteen of those parks already are over the 2 million mark in visitation.

Five national parks — Yosemite, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier – have experienced increases of at least 500,000 visitors more than last year’s totals, according to preliminary figures.

But such problems are a product partly of the Park Service’s making. The immense marketing push of the centennial celebrations were helped by an improving U.S. economy, and a period of lower gas prices. The increased visitation, combined with a mounting deferred maintenance ledger now up to about $12 billion, has stressed Park Service infrastructure and staffing. The question will be whether 2016 was an anomaly or a semi-permanent shift for which the National Park Service needs to contemplate dramatic measures.

What falls through the cracks when a park is under siege by dramatically increased visitation? Bryce Canyon’s Kathleen Gonder was quick to answer: “The quality of the experience.”

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