SUMMERTIME for many Americans means a long-awaited trip to the national parks. Last year, the National Park Service counted some 275 million visitors; in two years, the count is expected to reach 300 million.
U.S. national parks have long been seen as an expression of this country's infinite landscape, of the vast outdoors experience available to all. But the glut of visitors, and especially of their vehicles, has radically transformed the experience in some parks into a crowded, hurried, harried ordeal.
The park system is responding, though perhaps not rapidly enough, to deal with this crunch of tourists, the creeping traffic jams, failing sewage plants and the pall of vehicle air pollution.
Entrance fees last year were doubled, some quadrupled, to help catch up on a $5 million maintenance backlog; popular parks can keep fees for their own projects.
Despite recent hikes in the Park Service budget and the increased fees, national parks still get less money, adjusted for inflation, than two decades ago when they had half the number of visitors.
Victims of their popularity, the parks face difficult choices on how to remain natural and enjoyable.
Too many visitors and cars degrade the experience and environment in the major parks. Yet jacking up visitor fees to limit use contradicts the public philosophy. Pricing them like private theme parks is to deny the historic purpose of these lands.
Traffic can be reduced by public transportation. Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion parks are planning extensive transport systems -- electric shuttle buses and light rail -- to limit private vehicles. But the systems' huge cost, into the hundreds of millions of dollars, could mean prohibitive user fees unless subsidized by the government. Another idea for limiting use is to require reservations for admission to the most popular parks.
But if our national parks are more difficult to enter, requiring more forethought, we may better appreciate their unequaled beauty and majesty. Vacation trips might be made in off-season. People might turn to less-visited parks. Pleasurable solitude and quiet awe might return to the parks system.