Senators discuss challenges and opportunities as National Parks prepare for big tourist season

Posted at 6:54 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 20:54:47-04

US Senators voiced concerns about crowding and the quality of employee housing in National parks during a hearing in Washington Wednesday.

Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent predicted this summer will mark the biggest season ever for American National Parks.

Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines echoed that sentiment and also predicted a record year. But Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono said she is worried about congestion in the parks. She noted measures the Park Service is taking to control crowding during the pandemic and asked, “Will you encourage parks to continue pursuing these new systems beyond the pandemic in order to decrease overcrowding?”

National Parks Interim Superintendent Shawn Benge said getting visitors to do better trip planning is a top priority. Benge said all Park Service visitor management comes down to two big rules: “Our ultimate goal is to provide a quality visitor experience and protecting resources for future generations.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns told the senators he views waiting in line at a National Park as a sort of civic duty and likened it to standing in line to vote. He said he told his young daughters when they were caught in a buffalo jam in Yellowstone, that it was a good line to be in.

To help with crowding, the Park Service is rolling out its first mobile app this summer with a feature, for some parks, that will tell you how many spaces are available in the next parking lot you’ll come to. And there are other ideas.

“We have congestion issues in our parks and need to find ways here to relieve some of those pressures," said Daines. "And, one of those ideas is perhaps to encourage visitors to think about some of the lesser-known parks when they look at their itineraries. My question is how can we use your tools and your knowledge to highlight and drive visitation to some of these lesser-known parks?”

“We would be more than happy to go back to the Park Service and certainly work in concert with your committee to try to coordinate that information," Burns replied. "I think the wonders of the Big Hole and Big Horn are incredibly important and I think we can direct our populace there through educational works.”

Parks overcrowding is getting so much attention the committee plans to hold a separate hearing on that topic alone later this summer. Closely related to park overcrowding is substandard housing for park employees.

“We have made it a goal within the National Park Service to eliminate poor housing that exists in terms of quality of housing," Benge told the senators. "I think Yellowstone is a great example where we have invested a significant amount of money over the last three years, and if memory serves me right, we have replaced over 40 units in that particular park.”

Benge says the Park Service is also reaching out to help tour companies and other park contractors who are suffering because of the pandemic by extending their contracts by another two years. He also told senators that hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on parks infrastructure, including $126 million in Yellowstone Park alone. He said most of that money will be spent on roads and employee housing.

Under questioning by Maine’s Angus King, Benge said park visitors and park employees no longer have to wear a mask if they are fully vaccinated.