Peter Zelinka | The End of Wilderness?

The End of Wilderness?

January 30, 2018  •  2 Comments

What do all of these places have in common?

Schwabacher LandingSchwabacher LandingGrand Tetons reflecting in the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing Mesa Arch - SunriseMesa Arch - Sunrise Delicate Arch - MidnightDelicate Arch - MidnightThe Milky Way peaks through Delicate Arch on a beautiful October night Grinnell LakeGrinnell LakeGrinnell Lake landscape on a summer afternoon.

The NarrowsThe NarrowsHiking through The Narrows in Zion National Park Oneonta GorgeOneonta GorgeSunlight streams down into Oneonta Gorge Trillium LakeTrillium LakeA serene morning at Trillium Lake, in northern Oregon. Mount Hood can be seen reflecting in the calm water


They are all overrun with tourists!!

Now sure, most of these spots are well-known overlooks and they are often right near a road or trail.  With that being said, the amount of tourists visiting our National Parks each year is becoming overwhelming.  This report from 2016 shows just how bad things are getting.  I've read report after report that shows 2017 was the busiest year ever for many National Parks across the country.  It's gotten so bad at some parks, like Zion, that a mandatory shuttle system has been implemented.  Other National Parks, like Arches, are now considering something similar.  This article, "How A Surge in Visitors is Overwhelming America's National Parks" sums things up nicely. 

I've now spent 7 months living on the road, traveling all over the Western US.  Much of that time was spent inside National Parks, State Parks, BLM land, and the surrounding National Forest areas.  It seems no matter where I go, there are dozens if not thousands of people.  Even in the most remote areas I visited, it was impossible to find solitude.  One of the major reasons why people head into the wilderness is to escape civilization, people, technology, noise, and stress.  Unfortunately, this concept of true wilderness is becoming increasingly harder to find.

What should be a relaxing, solitary experience feels more like Disney World!


The Selfie Culture

Travel to any National Park and you are bound to see hordes of people cramming into iconic viewpoints, all for a selfie.  This is especially prevalent in parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Grand Teton National Park.  To make matters worse, buses come by every 10 minutes or so, unloading a mass of, usually foreign, tourists.  These people don't seem to care about the park or it's inhabitants, as long as they get a photo of themselves with the landscape in the background.  After they get their shot, the tour bus loads up and soon enough the next bus arrives.  This process repeats itself countless times throughout the day.

It seems tourists will do anything to get a cool selfie of themselves, whether that be walking right up to wild animals, climbing up on rock faces, or hopping over guard rails.  Do a search for National Park deaths, and you are bound to find dozens of stories where people fell off cliffs while trying to take a photo.

Tourists have seemingly no respect for the places they visit or for anyone else.  Time and time again I find myself "fighting" with the selfish selfie crowd.  I can spend 30 minutes at a spot, waiting for people to clear the scene so I can take one photo.  Soon enough though, another horde arrives, all cramming into the same spot to get their selfies.


Exposing Hidden Gems

The internet has allowed people to share stunning areas that were often overlooked or completely hidden.  One example in particular really stands out.  Kannaraville Falls, in western Utah.  This once secret spot is now plastered all over the internet, including apps like Instagram.  This article by Bree Burkitt explains how the small city of Kannaraville has been impacted by a massive influx of tourists.  Unfortunately, these problems aren't limited to just Kannaraville.

Oneonta Gorge in Oregon is another prime example.  This stunning gorge now has hundreds of people every day!  One of the photos above, with the people around the waterfall, was taken in Oneonta Gorge this past summer.  Here's another article from an Oregonian, Molly McHugh, who gives a local perspective on the loss of a once-hidden gem.  Just days after visiting the Columbia River Gorge, the entire landscape burnt to the ground in a massive wildfire.  The wildfire was initially started by some dumb kids throwing firecrackers...


The End of Wilderness? 

The National Parks were established to preserve the most beautiful places in America, so that all Americans could enjoy their lands.  Yet our frontcountry and backcountry are being inundated with people.  Go to any ranger station in Glacier National Park in the morning, and you will see a line of people waiting well before 7am.  Backcountry camping is limited to just a few sites throughout the park, and most of the permits are walk-in reservations.  Therefore, you need to be lucky and persistent to get a great backpacking trip planned out.  If you are unable to secure a spot for the night, you're pretty much out of luck.  The normal "car campgrounds" fill up every day by 8am, and some campgrounds are only available to those who reserved a spot months ahead of time, through an online system.  This phenomenon is not limited to just Glacier.  

Many Americans say they want our beautiful natural areas preserved and protected, yet they hate the idea of entrance-fee increases, reservations, or other methods of limiting the number of people into our National Parks.  Is it really conservation if millions of people are visiting each year?  Large lines of cars gridlocked at park entrances, literal lines of people waiting to climb up trails, overflowing trashbins, overflowing parking lots, campgrounds filled to capacity for weeks straight, people crowding around wildlife, and walls of photographers at popular overlooks.

In 2018, Zion National Park took the first steps towards reducing the impact of Photography Workshops in the park by banning tripods on trails.  This caused a massive outcry by the photography industry.  To be clear, only participants in a commercial photography workshop are limited by this new rule.  This article by Justin Black does a great job of detailing the current rule and exploring the problems of crowded parks.

Let's not forget the wildlife that are killed as a direct result of human's feeding them.  Recently, a story from Grand Teton National Park made headlines when a red fox was killed for approaching visitors.  As wildlife becomes accustomed to eating human food, they will become more bold.  Ultimately this will lead to their deaths.  It's one thing if a squirrel or chipmunk eats some crumbs, its another when tourists are deliberately feeding wild animals.

Wild animals are also killed if they attacked a human.  Rarely is this the fault of the animal.  When people with no knowledge of animal behavior head out into the wilderness, bad things are bound to happen.  Most of these attacks are because a person got too close to the animal, startled the animal, left food in their campsite, or got between a mother and her babies.  Wild animals rarely attack people without provocation.  Too many wild animals have been killed because of idiotic tourists.

It's clear that we need to start limiting the amount of people into the National Parks.  There's no good or fair way to do this however.  I spend months living out of my car each year, traveling across the country.  I hate the thought of a reservation system that requires you to plan out a trip months / years ahead of time.  Recently, Zion National Park moved to enforce a rule that would effectively ban photography workshops in The Narrows.  You can read more about that on David Kingham's post.  While this may actually help congestion in The Narrows, it's still not a great solution.  Clearly, there's no good way to start this process of limiting people into the parks.  No matter which course of action is taken, people will be angry.

As we move forward, with talks of increasing National Park entrance fees and removing areas that were designated National Monuments, we should reflect on the current status of our wild places.  Most National Parks desperately need more funding to keep maintain trails, roads, buildings, staff, and more; and with record numbers of visitors each year, this problem is getting exponentially worse.  We need to start a national dialogue and discuss different ways we can limit the amount of visitors and protect our wild places.  Here's the bottom line: our National Parks and wild areas are being loved to death.

As I finish this post, I'm left wondering what my impact has been.  Frankly, I'm completely guilty of some of the charges I've made against others.  I see a beautiful spot on Instagram, mark it on my map, and hopefully visit it while I'm on a roadtrip.  I never would have known about these locations were it not for the internet.  At least I practice 'Leave No Trace' and respect the beautiful locations I visit, I don't run up to wild animals to take a photo with my cellphone or iPad, nor do I trample on delicate tundra or other sensitive areas.

However, I may be responsible for increasing the amount of visitors to a beautiful location.  For example, I posted a photo of Squaretop Mountain, in the Wind River Range, on Reddit.  This photo was viewed over 30,000 times within 2 days!  How many of those people had never seen Squaretop Mountain before, but are now adding it to their list?  In an effort to enjoy, capture, and showcase the beauty of our natural world, am I also leading to its destruction?

The paradox of a nature photographer.


Will Goodlet(non-registered)
In response to Robert Pendergast - "ID your photos as taken in Africa"
Why export your problem to my part of the world? I like the wilderness just the way it is out here thanks and there is plenty of traffic and destruction enough here already!

In response to Peter, good read and great to see your thoughts on this worldwide epidemic. I find myself going to extremely remote and difficult to reach places to escape mass tourism. Happily, over here, the risk of murder, banditry, the odd land mine, no road network and unpredictable officials, all helps to keep things wild but I am in no doubt that mass tourism is coming.

The model used in Botswana could work, very high-end low impact tourism - the difficulty is that only the rich get to visit (certainly not me). It is undoubtedly better for the wildlife to have less traffic through an area though and after all, conservation or should I say preservation should probably take precedence over our (species) wish to travel and photograph.
Robert L. Pendergast(non-registered)
1) ID your photos as being taken in Africa or South America
2) Close the national parks every other year to allow them to recover
3)Keep entrance raters a little higher than comfortable for tourists
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