America's most popular national parks are seeing a record number of visitors, and that's a problem.
“We can accidentally love our parks to death,” Sen. Angus King of Maine, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, said last week at a congressional hearing on overcrowding at national parks.
"It's great to see so many Americans are taking advantage of these parks," he said. "That is, after all, why we protect these lands in the first place. However, at the same time, we must recognize that overcrowding at the parks itself can degrade the natural resources and wildlife that these units are designed to protect."
This summer, the park service began requiring reservations at some of its most popular destinations, like Acadia National Park's Cadillac Mountain and Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, but visitors can play a role in reducing crowds and protecting parks by following the outdoor code of Leave No Trace.
Christine Hoyer, a backcountry management specialist with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most-visited national park, said Leave No Trace can apply to any park or public space, and it all boils down to three things: respecting the land and resources, respecting the things that live on the land and respecting other visitors.
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What are the 7 principles of Leave No Trace?
In the 1980s, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management developed the seven principles of Leave No Trace to help minimize the impact of outdoor recreation.
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Be considerate of other visitors
Respecting the land and resources
"It's real easy to think ... 'That's not a big deal. It's just me,'" Hoyer said of seemingly harmless actions like carving into trees or wandering off designated trails. "As soon as one person steps off a trail and follows a path somewhere, then compaction happens on the ground, and not only do other people see that and follow it, but water follows it."
That can have a cumulative impact on the land and its inhabitants.
Fire can be an even more obvious threat. To minimize campfire impacts, the park service recommends using established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires only where campfires are allowed, keeping campfires small and putting them out completely, then scattering the cool ashes. Several states across the West have already been ravaged by wildfires this season.
Respecting the things that live on the land
"Everybody's really excited to see the bear and the elk and the things that live here, but we also want to make sure we're honoring that this is their home," Hoyer said. "Anytime you get close enough to an animal that it changes its behavior – it looks up from the ground, it notices you – then you're too close to it, and we don't want to do anything that habituates those wild animals to people."
Many parks require visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from most wildlife and 100 yards away from predators like bears.
The "feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentional disturbing of wildlife nesting, breeding or other activities" is against the law.
It's also illegal to remove plants, rocks, or other artifacts from national parks without a permit.
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Respecting other visitors
"The National Park Service wants visitors to have a high-quality experience everywhere they go in the National Park System," NPS regional director Michael T. Reynolds said in testimony submitted to the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.
"The decisions you make and the actions you take on your trip do impact all those folks,” Hoyer said. "Just imagine that you want to do everything you can as a visitor to make sure that everybody coming behind you can have that same experience.”
To enjoy those experiences without crowds, the park service recommends going to a less-visited national park.
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Visitation trends at NPS' 423 sites over 85 million acres "greatly vary," Reynolds testified at the subcommittee hearing. "About half of all our recreation visits are occurring at only the top 23 most-visited parks, with significant congestion conditions concentrated in the most popular 12 to 15 destination parks."
"I think one of the ways we might be able to better address the increased visitation is looking for ways to encourage folks to spend a day in some of these lesser-visited parks," said the subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National parks are crowded: How to leave no trace for others