Ecotourism’s Responsibility to U.S. National Parks

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A queue of cars winds, slithers, meanders, and crawls for miles up to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Waves of heat hover above the combustion-driven mass of metal and plastic. It is civilization in conflict with the natural surroundings of lush green hills, stands of majestic hardwoods, cold running brooks, long and deep blue sky, and shadowy ridges.  Ecotourism’s responsibility to natural spaces seems abstract in today’s overcrowded conditions at many U.S. National Parks.


In 1968, in Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey implored the U.S. National Park system to ban cars from a ten mile distance from all park entrances.  

“Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs — anything — but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out (52) ….There is no compelling reason, for example, why tourists need to drive their automobiles to the very brink of the Grand Canyon’s south rim… Trips along the rim would also be made on foot, on horseback, or — utilizing the paved road which already exists — on bicycles” (53).

Abbey wrote just before the engineer visits and miles of paved roads and campground expansions and fancy tourist information booths. Now, nearly 50 years later, “all that was foretold has come to pass” (44). In 2015, over the Memorial Day holiday, police had to shut down the road into Arches National Park in Utah where Abbey had served as seasonal park ranger because so many people wanted to get in.

Is this ecotourism at its best?  Has the U.S. National Park Service lived up to its original mission? One hundred years ago, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation that created the National Park Service (NPS) to manage 35 parks and monuments. The National Parks were formed to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Park officials say they’re doing what they can, citing how they make do with the resources they have and encourage visitors to use shuttles to cut down on the number of vehicles within parks.  Francesco Orsi, an assistant professor of geography at Kansas State University and the editor of Sustainable Transportation in Natural and Protected Areas, says buses offer “more capacity and more demand on the trail system.” Buses do not alleviate ecotourism’s responsibility as protector of remote and rare ecological spaces.

The National Park Service is aware how congestion impedes the visitor experience and has the potential to damage fragile park ecosystems.  In 2014, a NPS Congestion Management Toolkit focused on “motor vehicle congestion (cars, trucks, buses, etc.).” It acknowledges how a transportation system is analogous to “an ecosystem, whereby the ‘health’ of the system depends on the interrelationship between elements such as air, water, soil, flora and fauna.”

So how can ecologically-minded businesses which depend on the National Park system help its consumers to balance a love of its pristine outdoor spaces with a productive profitability? By definition, ecotourism sustains and even enhances the geographical character of a place: its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents, Now more than ever, ecotourism’s responsibility is to reinforce the original mission of the U.S. National Park system.

Ecotourism’s Responsibility to Protect U.S. National Parks

Ecotourism has the potential to benefit the surrounding community both culturally and financially by protecting the natural assets and interpreting the gift of the environment for the visiting public. Here are some ways that ecotourism businesses can support natural community assets like the U.S. National Parks.

  • Instead of depicting pop culture as the basis of a sustainable tourism program, reconcile how much use can ultimately be accommodated in parks and protected areas, also called “carrying capacity.”  Make potential customers aware of an area’s carrying capacity as a foundational value of your ecotourism business plan.
  • Identify, protect, and celebrate what is important about parks and their specific special areas.  
  • Design quality of visitor experience rather than quantity of visitors who participate in your goods and services.
  • Establish procedures for monitoring the conditions for quality consumer experiences.
  • Evaluate how your staff as commercial operators implement specific actions to manage consumer demand as threshold values are reached.
  • Educate your staff and the public— your commercial visitors—about fragility of resources and ways that consumers can have minimum impact.
  • Enforce policies, even in times of temptation to exceed limits, recognizing that exclusions may be spatial or temporal.

Rich Historical and Cultural Biodiversity through Ecotourism’s Responsibility

As the U.S. National Parks celebrate their 100 year anniversary, we can appreciate the achievements of the past, but our sights really must be on the future. It is important for ecotourism business owners to step back and remember how the diverse flora and fauna, unique landscapes, and very rich historical and cultural heritage contribute to an area’s ecological significance. And ecotourism can adopt a key role in protecting and even strengthening the biodiversity of rare and wonderful natural spaces.

As Edward Abbey recognized, a human “on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists in a hundred miles.  Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time” (54). It is not too late to pursue Abbey’s vision of a National Park system without mechanization.  Importantly, ecotourism can become a role model industry by showing restraint when excessive demand may impact the very habitats that we savor and respect.  
Idea credit— Big Cypress National Reserve, “Sustainable Ecotourism and Visitor Capacity

Photo credit: stevetulk via / CC BY




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