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National Parks inundated with trash as visitor numbers spike after lockdowns

·3-min read
Long lines at Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in January 2021 (National Parks Service)
Long lines at Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in January 2021 (National Parks Service)

After more than a year in lockdown, tourists have taken up travel again, breathing life back into airline and hospitality businesses, but leaving others – like state and national parks and public lands – reeling from the sudden onslaught of visitors.

High Country News reports that the first five months of 2021 have been the busiest ever for western US public lands, despite it being only the start of tourist season.

This has left agencies managing these lands, which are often underfunded and understaffed, fighting against land destruction, pollution, and an increase in tourist deaths.

In Oregon, state parks were overrun by out-of-state visitors, which prompted state officials to increase the camping fees for non-residents after residents complained they could not find anywhere to camp.

In 2020, Zion National Park saw approximately 500,000 visitors between January and April, far fewer than the nearly 900,000 that visited the previous year during the same time period. In 2021, however, that number shot up far beyond what the park saw in 2019 and 2018, with more than 1.2m visitors traveling to Zion in the four-month period.

Similar numbers exist at other national parks; Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Glacier, Canyonlands, Arches and Crater Lake National Parks all saw higher numbers of visitors in the first four months of 2021 than the similar period in the past three years, according to National Parks data.

The only park in the data that saw a decrease was Joshua Tree National Park in the deserts of California, which saw a slight decrease from its 2019 numbers. Even still, more than 1.2m people have visited the park in 2021.

The explosion of visitors brought with it a tidal wave of trash and damage to some of the parks.

In Utah, a National Park Ranger reported collecting nine pounds of human waste along a single stretch of trail, and had to clean more than 1,000 drawings or etchings that people made into the rocks.

"This year has been over the top with new visitors who really are not educated as to how to appropriately recreate," Joette Langianese, the director of a nonprofit called Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, told The Associated Press. "For example, throwing garbage just on the ground and not in the garbage can, or walking off the trail or stepping on the [cryptobiotic] soil."

In Yosemite National Park, overcrowding and visitors traveling off trail caused damage to the shallow root systems of the giant sequoia trees the park is known for.

"While the National Park Service did build a raised walkway to solve some of this problem, too many visitors driving to, parking and scrambling around the trees remains a problem," Michael Childers, a historian and national park expert at Colorado State University, told Live Science. "We all want to experience these places, but we can't all go at once."

Along with increased trash and increased damage to the parks also comes an increase in tourist injuries and deaths.

The volunteer search and rescue team in Washington County, Utah, responded to 170 incidents in 2020, 40 more incidents than reported in the previous year. More are expected this year as the tourist numbers surge.

In Colorado, 12 people have already died in avalanche-related incidents during the 2020-2021 winter season, which matched the modern record high set in 1993, and 34 people have drowned in the state's lakes. That number did set a record for the state.

The wave of new visitors has prompted some parks and public lands to consider tightening the number of visitors allowed in, and in some cases parks have considered closing to mitigate further damage.

The Associated Press reported that since the start of 2021, Arches National Park has closed its gates more than 80 times due to the influx of visitors.

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