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Visiting a national park like Yellowstone or Yosemite is the highlight of the year for many Americans. Too often, though, careless tourists make a mark on treasured landscapes that lasts well beyond their quick trip. Some damage even lasts decades, such as wayward steps made on the biological soil crusts of Canyonlands, Arches and Capital Reef national parks. Recent years have seen a string of epically bad (even criminal) behavior: crashing a drone into Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park, illegal off-road driving in Death Valley National Park, spray-painting rocks and cacti in Joshua Tree National Park, tagging sandstone with blue dots as some sort of doltish “art project” in Zion National Park. The egregiousness of some of this conduct is stunning.
And yet it's not just boorish behaviors like these that damage the parks. Far too often, well-meaning visitors inadvertently cause harm. They trample rare flowers or 100-year-old moss while hiking to a better vantage point, carelessly let trash blow away from their backpacks, or relieve themselves in inappropriate areas. Even more common are tourists who get too close to elk, deer or bison in an effort to snag the perfect Instagram photo, causing the animals to scamper away. That may not seem much of a concern in the moment, but in northern national parks like Yellowstone, where elk need every calorie they can get to survive the harsh Montana winters, tourists chasing them away even two times a week can add up to enough wasted fat stores that they won't make it through the snow season.
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Now, with many Americans desperate to get outside and explore, the national parks are seeing a surge in visitors — while at the same time struggling with staffing shortages, limited services and social-distancing concerns for both visitors and their staff. National Park Service (NPS) rangers have reported seeing a rise in masks lying along roadways, more feces at trailheads (because of closed bathroom facilities) and first-time visitors generally behaving poorly. And, unfortunately, much of this damage is concentrated in the most popular and scenic areas of each park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which saw a 40 percent decline in visitation from January through May, is finding a surge of visitors in popular areas such as Clingmans Dome and Cades Cove. “Our field staff are reporting busy roadways, congested parking areas and crowds at some of our most iconic destinations,” says park spokesperson Dana Soehn. “So while visitation is down overall, it does seem to be busier than usual in the primary locations.”