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Will National Park Status Limit Access for School Groups? Climbers?


Although nearby Colorado national monuments-turned-national parks have struggled to attract visitors, other national parks such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite are mulling the imposition of quotas for peak visitation times. Despite the fact that access to campsites, lodging, guided tours and other national park features require special arrangements, sometimes years in advance, simply entering a park does not. But as seasonal overcrowding, overuse, and destruction at national parks becomes increasingly problematic, it is possible that reservations will be required for simply visiting for an hour or two.

Bob Janiskee wrote an article for National Parks Traveler in February 2008 detailing one scenario which might result as the National Park Services grapples with emerging usage issues. It says:

In the worst case scenario, the Park Service might have to adopt truly draconian measures. Some observers believe that it is only a matter of time before we see strict entrance and recreational facility quotas employed. A few have suggested that access to national parks and their recreational facilities might best be regulated by a national lottery, and that a “white market” for park permits should be allowed to flourish.

Here is how it would work. The Park Service would use the best available scientific methods to determine the recreational carrying capacity, acceptable limits of change, and other limiting factors in parks that experience serious overcrowding and related facilities overuse during peak seasons. The key question is how much access and use can be permitted without seriously reducing recreational quality or causing unacceptable damage to physical and cultural resources in the parks.

The agency would then set peak-period quotas for admission and recreational facilities use at the “problem parks.” Each quota would express the maximum number of permits to be issued for visiting a particular park and engaging in specified recreational activities during a specified period of time. The quotas would be partially filled through allocations to tour operators, park concessionaires, various other commercial recreation providers, and presumably some national NGOs. The remaining permits would be allocated to the public via lottery.

Peak traffic times at the Colorado National Monument have already maxed-out roads, parking turnouts, and campsites. As the NPS mulls “draconian measures” to manage burgeoning crowds within fragile natural environments, one cannot help but worry that even locals may someday have to wait to win the lotto in order to simply visit the treasure they see out their back windows everyday.

A school groups hikes a geologically interesting trail near Devil's Kitchen

A school groups hikes a geologically interesting trail near Devil’s Kitchen

With its current designation the Colorado National Monument is very accessible to school groups in the months from March to November. For small groups guided by parents and teachers no special arrangements are needed. For larger school groups doing educational, ranger-guided trips, they may do so with only a week or two advanced notice. Up to 100 students in a group can easily navigate most of the shorter trails in relative safety without the congestion, stress, and increased danger presented by tourists in large guided, or unguided groups.

MSCVD 51 "STEM" Summer School students enjoy a cliff side view

MSCVD 51 “STEM” Summer School students enjoy a cliff side view

Rappelling and climbing are also allowed within the CNM. Many hikers will use rappelling gear to drop into canyons during their excursions. Some groups simply like to focus on rappelling down cliff faces as a sole activity. Independence Rock, the literal heart of the CNM, is a destination for climbers. The traditional 4th of July planting of the American Flag at the top of Independence Rock goes back a hundred years.  Two years ago the NPS tried to ban climbing within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and although some Western Senators were able to convince the NPS to postpone the ban, similar measures are being considered in other parks.

In 2013 the NPS created new “Wilderness Climbing Rules” that limit climbing and rappelling activities in many national parks, and could do so in what is now the Colorado National Monument. The new climbing rules would allow the NPS to remove existing bolts and ban the placing of new ones in certain areas. The Wilderness Climbing Rules also includes a “prior authorization” clause requiring climbers to “approach” park officers to place bolts, and even removable pitons. This means that climbers would have to apply to receive permission from the NPS–a possibly months or years-long process–to engage in the climbing and rappelling activities they so enjoy, and have done so for decades with few barriers.

Those pushing national park status for the Colorado National Monument seem to ignore the negative consequences that come with such a change; consequences that can be seen at other national parks throughout the country. Is losing access to our sustainable, relatively pristine local treasure worth the false “prestige” that comes with the title “National Park?”