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Can National Parks Practice Social Distancing?

Jeff Ruch

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The still unfolding pandemic has underlined the public health risks that national parks and refuges pose both to the visiting public and their own employees. Over the past few weeks, more than 140 park units have shuttered with more closing every day.

For the very same reason they are now closing – the danger of infections and the inability to maintain social distancing  – reopening them will not be as simple as unlocking the gates.

In a time of growing urbanization, national parks are crowd magnets, shattering visitation records in each of the past three years.

Yet, the era of social distancing has just begun, as experts predict several more rounds of coronavirus waves. In fact, unless dispositive interventions such as vaccines and drug therapies can be put into place very soon, it may be necessary for intermittent social distancing measures to be maintained into 2022.

In addition, globalization raises the risks of other exotic infections growing into future pandemics, triggering new rounds of social distancing.

How can national parks dedicated to attracting crowds can operate in a new era of social distancing?

Even more fundamental is the question of whether national parks have become addicted to overcrowding, even as many observers, including former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, admit that parks are being “loved to death.”

Ironically, for more than 40 years, national parks by law have been under a mandate to prevent harmful overcrowding. The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 requires “visitor carrying capacities for all areas” of each park unit.

Yet, almost no major national parks have carrying capacities. A review by PEER of 108 major park units (59 National Parks, 19 National Preserves, two National Reserves, 18 National Recreation Areas, and 10 National Seashores in the 419-unit system) found that only seven have established carrying capacities and all but one of those only cover only certain areas or facilities.

In fact, parks paralyzed by overcrowding are equally paralyzed by politics. A good example is Zion, one of the parks most beset by stifling crowds, which proposed timid first steps toward setting carrying capacities. But Zion has been unable to move forward due to stiff political pushback and zero support from the Trump administration.

In our new post-pandemic world, national parks need to take a new, hard look at the statutory requirement for carrying capacities. As long-ignored National Park Service policy explains carrying capacities are not merely a hard limit on the number of visitors but are standards for –

    • Preventing unacceptable overcrowding, such as caps on waiting times to see a park feature;
    • Maximum number of encounters on trails; or
    • The ability to camp out of sight or sound range of neighbors.

These concepts take on new resonance in a time of social distancing.

Our parks can no longer be managed only for their Organic Act core mandate of preventing impairment of park resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Parks today also need to be managed to protect the health of visitors and staff.

Meeting this new and unprecedented challenge will require both a new national conversation and a strength of leadership we have unfortunately not seen in our national park system for a generation.

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Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 25 years as the Executive Director of PEER. 

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