The people’s parks
According to the National Park Service, more than 300 million people visited national parks last year, the third highest attendance since record keeping began in 1904.
In announcing the numbers last month, Dan Smith, the service’s deputy director, said, “The visitation to our national parks continues to affirm that Americans are in love with their public lands and hold dear the stories of our nation embodied in the natural, cultural and historic landscapes we protect in the National Park System.”
On the other hand, some fear that we could also be loving our parks to death.
The recent government shutdown underscored two points: how much some people take the parks for granted and how little they understand the very delicate balance between nature and wilderness.
While most park employees were furloughed for 35 days in December and January, the parks remained open, leading to problems with overflowing trash and toilets and reports of vandalism.
Conservationists feared that the fallout could result in the reversal of years of conservation efforts, including attempts to wean bears and coyotes from associating humans with food.
There were also concerns about the damage caused by visitors wandering protected areas unchecked and, of course, about problems like pollution from human feces.
But even when the parks are fully staffed, the sheer number of visitors leads to problems, from the family that thought it was rescuing a baby bison and put it in their car — after which it had to be euthanized — to countless stories of visitors getting way too close to and harassing wildlife to take photos.
Many visitors drive through on their own, jostling with crowds for views and never learning the history or about the unique cast of players who spent years and untold millions to create this unmatched legacy. Nor do many comprehend just how much damage even the most well-behaved visits can wreak on the ecosystem.
For example, on our tour through Yellowstone we had an unusual and exciting bison encounter that appeared to most of us to have ended without harm.
It happened as our snow coach — probably the first on the road in the largely deserted park that morning — came across a lone bison blocking our path.
We had already encountered several bison during our trip and were expecting that this one, like the others, would slowly move out of our way.
However, as we inched forward to maneuver around the bull, which tour director Zack Pennington estimated to weigh 2,000 pounds, it became clear that the animal wanted no part of us on his road. When we veered left, so did he. As we moved right, he did the same.
Then his tail started moving, a sign he was becoming agitated. And he began running back and forth in front of and slightly beside us, appearing to be on the verge of ramming our snow coach.
We finally made our way past, hoping he would settle down before the rest of our group, in a snow coach behind us, came through.
What we didn’t know was that a group of snowmobilers had moved in between our two coaches.
Fellow travelers captured on video what came next: several very close and scary encounters as the bison charged the snowmobilers who had stopped, then two-by-two sped through openings to rush past the huge bull. One sideswiped a snow bank and nearly tipped over.
Later, as we all laughed and marveled at what we had seen, it was clear that Pennington and a park employee were concerned.
It is unusual for bison to get that wound up by vehicles on the road, Pennington explained, and it was always troubling to see a bison expend unnecessary energy during the winter because the species needs all it can get just to survive until spring.
Fortunately, until a few weeks prior, it had been a fairly mild winter in the park. So hopefully, Pennington said, the big guy was just frisky and used to doing whatever he wanted, including not sharing the road.
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