Are We Trampling Our National Parks?

By: Cambrey Knapp + Save to a List

If we aren't careful, we could end up loving these places to death.

Today, the outdoor industry is bigger than it has ever been. There are more companies producing and advertising outdoor products to fulfill the growing demand. This is all driven by a greater push to get outdoors, to explore and to seek these natural places. And it makes sense; from essentially the beginning of time, nature simply inspires people. There have been numerous studies done that suggest that spending time outside does wonders for not only our physical health but for our mental health as well. Anecdotes from those who have personally sought the wilderness would almost certainly support these claims. It is a space that naturally builds community, family and overall social bonds. Let’s not forget the unique, breath-taking views that so often accompany these areas.

Sadly, as our collective interest in getting outdoors has risen, so has human impact on these wild spaces. Head to Yosemite National Park this summer (or rather sit and wait in traffic for three hours to get into Yosemite Valley) and you will understand what I am talking about. Traditionally, Yosemite has held a relatively standard level of annual visitors at 4-4.5 million. Although this is already an incredibly high number, the level this year is expected to spike to six million people. That’s about a 30% increase, which means 30% more wear on the land and amenities, 30% more waste, and 30% more resources used to accommodate this crowd. Working as a guide in Yosemite has especially brought this to my attention. The more time you spend in the backcountry, the more you will notice unfortunate instances of human impact, most likely generating from people who have not been educated on how to properly travel in the wilderness. Yosemite is currently one of the most popular national park in terms of number of visitors, however other national parks are experiencing a similar trend. Because of these high numbers, many parks are working on developing better shuttle systems to limit the number of cars coming in. But should greater efforts be taken to decrease our impact on these places? Should national parks have a daily visitor quota? Should there be required education about wilderness to enter the park? Where should we draw the line? While it’s exciting to see more support for national parks overall, it is important to remember just how talented humans are at impacting the land with which they occupy. And if we are not careful, we could be destroying the very lands that we have fought so hard to protect.

Lower Yosemite Falls

The point is not to avoid visiting these beautiful places all together, but it’s more a warning not to love these parks to death. How can we best accomplish this balance of visitation and conservation? A good start is to follow the seven Leave No Trace principles when traveling in the wilderness.

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare: This tip is an important one. Some of the biggest individual impacts on the environment have occurred as a result of people not being prepared for the wilderness and all of the variables that come with it.
    • Check the weather for the days you will be traveling. Are there thunderstorms expected? High winds? Extreme heat? Know what you are getting into and bring the appropriate gear.
    • Know where you will be camping and where your water sources are.
    • Is the trail well-travelled and thus well marked? Or will you be mainly doing more traveling off trail?
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Imagine a lush meadow, with spongey soil, lightly carpeted with dainty wildflowers. Now imagine several tents planted on top of those flowers, unknowingly and permanently flattening them and occupying an area normally frequented by timid wildlife looking for a safe place to graze. We often don’t think about the impact of where we plant our feet, let alone where we lay our head. When looking for camping spots in the backcountry outside of established campgrounds, look for areas that have likely already been campsites for others and that are planted on solid ground with minimal grasses and other vegetation underfoot. The same goes for where you choose to hike. Prioritize established trails when possible, don’t cut off switchbacks, and when traveling off trail, do so in a respectful manner.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly: Pooping in the woods? Exciting for some, terrifying for others. But honestly, once you get used to it, it’s actually quite enjoyable. It’s also necessary for anyone wanting to do extended trips in the backcountry. So if you’re going to use the "facili-trees," make sure to dig a hole 4-6 inches deep and bury your solid waste in it. If you choose to use toilet paper, bring a bag to pack it out – do not bury the toilet paper with your waste! Animals will dig it up, guaranteed, and it does not biodegrade nearly as fast as you think. Plus, seeing used toilet paper strewn around your favorite wilderness areas is incredibly unsightly. So please, please, please, for the good of both the environment and the people who would like to enjoy it, dispose of your waste properly. 
  • Leave What You Find: The wilderness is full of incredibly interesting things. In fact, places like national parks are akin to living museums, where things have been relatively preserved for several decades (and for some, a whole century!). So just like you wouldn’t steal artifacts from a history museum or paintings from an art museum, please leave the artifacts (including the rocks, leaves and pinecones) where you found them. Each aspect of the wilderness is more connected than you could ever realize, so taking a leaf here and a rock there could unknowingly result in a huge impact over time.
  • Minimize Fire Impact: Especially in dry states such as California, Arizona and Nevada, this principle is especially important when traveling in the wilderness. A campfire is one of those quintessential aspects of time spent overnight in the wilderness. While they can help uplift spirits and bring people together while keeping mosquitoes and other bugs away, they can easily get out of hand if they are not monitored or extinguished properly. If you’re planning on making a fire, make sure to use already established fire rings (also, by camping at a spot with pre-established fire rings, you know that you picked a spot that has already been used as a campsite and thus will most likely be following principle #2!). Also, when extinguishing a fire, make sure to pour enough water on it so that the coals are cool to the touch. A rare phenomenon can occur where fires can catch the roots of trees on fire in pockets of air in the soil underneath the fire ring. The fire can then spread along the tree root and catch the tree on fire above ground. Although this does not happen very often, completely dousing the fires will minimize this risk and keep burning embers from popping out of the ring and spreading that way. 
  • Respect Wildlife: Popular areas known for their wildlife like Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks have also unfortunately garnered recognition for human-wildlife run-ins. Go to either park and you will see educational signs about past experiences of bears ripping off car doors to get to food and all-to-close encounters with charging bison. The truth is, wildlife are incredibly interesting, so naturally human visitors are fascinated with the thought of getting close to them; however, wildlife are more fascinated with the food carried by these human visitors and will make desperate attempts to get at these easy calories. If they are not interested in your food, they will be more interested in keeping their own personal space. This is why it is very important to keep a good distance from any wildlife you see, even if it is an adorable chipmunk. It is better for both your health and the health of the animals. Not sure what a “good distance” is? Use this rule of thumb (pun intended, read on): if you hold out your thumb at an arm’s length between yourself and the animal and you can still see the animal behind your thumb, you are too close!
  • Respect Other Visitors: When it all comes down to it, we all come to the wilderness to seek peace, solitude and an enriching time surrounded by nature. By respecting each other on the trail and at our campsites, we can help create positive experiences in these places that are so dearly valued by the people who visit. 

Utilizing these principles will not completely negate our inevitable impact on wilderness areas, however it will significantly decrease our amount of impact while cultivating a respectful relationship with nature. As the National Park Service attempts to tackle this issue of having too many visitors, we as visitors need to take responsibility for ourselves. The National Park system is the birth child of the United States and several passionate minds. If it takes a village to raise a child, its going to take the whole damn country to keep this system running as it should.

On top of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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