For U.S. parks, a balancing act

Access to nature vies with overcrowding

September 10, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOAB, Utah - Like ants on the lip of a giant bowl, swarms of tourists wait at the top of a red rock amphitheater for their turn to pose beneath towering Delicate Arch, one of the most famous landmarks crafted by Mother Nature.

On most days, it is a surprisingly civilized gathering, despite the blazing desert sun. But the politeness sometimes gives way to fights that require ranger intervention. And sometimes the combatants return to the overfilled parking lot to find that someone has boxed them in.

It is then that Arches National Park seems more like a theme park than a natural wonder.

As the number of annual visitors to national parks approaches 300 million, superintendents from Acadia to Zion are trying to figure out how to deal with too much of a good thing.

"Overuse is perceived by the public as our problem," says Marilyn Hof, a National Park Service senior planner in Denver who acts as a consultant to individual parks. "We're not going to get any more Grand Canyons or Yosemites, so we'd better figure out how to manage what we have."

This month, Hof will be at Skyline Drive in Virginia and North Carolina to begin developing a way to deal with the traffic jams that come with the fall foliage watching.

Congress gave the National Park Service a two-pronged mission whose parts sometimes seem incompatible: Parks must be accessible, but they also must be protected from overuse.

The paradox has more park managers turning to a University of Vermont professor and his computer-generated flash cards to get a grip on the madding crowds.

"It is a difficult balancing act, no question, one that almost certainly involves conflicts," says Robert Manning, who teaches natural resources management. "One person's accessibility is another person's encroachment on solitude."

Until Manning came along, it was almost impossible to determine the "carrying capacity," or threshold of people and types of activities each park could handle. Gripes from frustrated visitors tended to be vague or anecdotal, and park managers were reluctant to make policy on that basis.

So the professor and his staff devised a detailed questionnaire about park conditions and visitor behavior, supplementing it with a series of illustrations that showed a particular trail or recreation area at different levels of use.

The red rock bowl around Delicate Arch was depicted with no visitors, a handful of visitors and several busloads. After analyzing the responses of 1,500 people, Manning was able to tell park managers that the threshold was 30 visitors at a time.

That's all well and good, says park Superintendent Rock Smith, but a limit of 30 people is not acceptable at a park that receives nearly 900,000 visitors annually.

"We are a very accessible park. Arches is popular because you can drive to many of the features or take just a short walk," says Smith, who acknowledges the problem.

Arches is conducting an alternate transportation study that might conclude that the best solution is a shuttle bus system.

"But it may make matters worse, dumping more people into an already crowded location," he says.

Meanwhile, tourists are taking matters into their own hands, turning the desert around the parking areas into "social pulloffs," as they are called. Rangers have counted 129 unofficial parking areas along the 17-mile road that winds past the stone arches.

"We need to find an acceptable level of crowding and act on it," Smith says. "Will we have to turn people away? I don't think so, but it may come to that."

The roads of Acadia

Sometimes, Manning says, the clash isn't fueled by the number of users, but by their activities.

At Acadia National Park in Maine, hikers and horseback riders have long complained that speeding bicyclists are ruining the 57 miles of dirt-and-gravel carriage roads designed in the early 1900s by John D. Rockefeller. Bikers fired back, saying the other groups were hogging the roads by walking three abreast and bringing unleashed dogs.

Manning showed park visitors computer-generated pictures of a carriage road with a handful of walkers, a lot of walkers and a mixture of walkers and bike riders.

Based on the results of the survey, park managers determined that with a daily capacity of 3,000 people, the carriage roads were not overused and, in fact, there wasn't anything wrong that enforcement and education wouldn't fix.

"The survey is a great early warning device," says Charles Jacobi, the Acadia resource specialist who acts as peacemaker between users. "We wish we had it 20 years ago."

Now, rangers in the visitors centers and patrolling the trail preach carriage road manners that would make Rockefeller proud. When parking lots fill up, they suggest other activities.

"Sooner or later, we'll have to close the gate," says Jacobi. "Fortunately, we're not there yet."

Making choices

As national park visits rise, Manning and his pictures are more and more in demand.

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