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Know the West

Crowds swarm the public lands

Land managers and gateway communities struggle to keep up.

Last spring, as the first wave of measures to halt the spread of coronavirus kicked in, travel screeched nearly to a halt, and the hospitality and tourism industry slowed considerably. Locals in public-land gateway towns predicted doom — and also breathed a big sigh of relief. Their one-trick-pony economies would surely suffer, but at least all the newly laid-off residents would have the surrounding land to themselves for a change.

For a few months, the prognostications — both positive and negative — held true. Visitation to national parks crashed, vanishing altogether in places like Arches and Canyonlands, which were shut down for the month of April. Sales and lodging tax revenues spiraled downward in gateway towns. Officials in many a rural county pleaded with or ordered nonresidents to stay home, easing the burden on the public lands. It was enough to spawn a million #natureishealing memes.

 

Trash hanging from a tree (left) and a sign (right) at a popular dispersed camping area in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, in July 2020.

In the end, however, the respite was short-lived. By midsummer, even as temperatures climbed to unbearable heights, forests burned and the air filled with smoke, people began traveling again, mostly by car and generally closer to home. They inundated the public lands, from the big, heavily developed national parks like Zion and the humbler state parks, to dispersed campsites on Bureau of Land Management and national forest lands.

It was more than just a return of the same old crowds. Millions of outdoor-recreation rookies apparently turned to the public lands to escape the pandemic. Nearly every national park in the West had relatively few visitors from March until July. But then numbers surged to record-breaking levels during the latter part of 2020 — a trend that was reflected and then some on the surrounding non-park lands.

Boulder Creek, Colorado, in 2020.
If nature did manage a little healing in the spring, by summer the wounds were ripped open again.

If nature did manage a little healing in the spring, by summer the wounds were ripped open again in the form of overuse, torn-up alpine tundra, litter, noise, car exhaust and crowd-stressed wildlife. Human waste and toilet paper were scattered alongside photogenic lakes and streams. Search and rescue teams, most of which are volunteer, were overwhelmed, with some being called out three or more times a week. Meanwhile, the agencies charged with overseeing the lands have long been underfunded and understaffed — a situation exacerbated by the global pandemic. They were simply unable to get a handle on all of the use — and increased abuse.

There is no end in sight: The first five months of 2021 have been the busiest ever for much of the West’s public lands. And tourist season has only just begun.   

Zion National Park, Utah, this May.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

Sources: National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Outdoor Industry Association, Wyoming State Parks & Cultural Resources, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Town of Silverton, Great Outdoors Colorado, Teton County.