When you come upon a view in nature that strikes you like lightning, it’s not unusual to feel gratitude.
Gratitude to an inspirational higher power, gratitude for the laws of natural science, gratitude for your feet for carrying you — even gratitude for your tax dollars at work.
But public land is being overtaxed by a tsunami of use.
Nationwide, parks and trails are battered by crowds stoked by pandemic cabin fever.
According to the Washington Post, the National Park Service reported that more than 31 million people had visited its 423 sites in June alone — a crush that spurred a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee meeting on overcrowding. Big parks like Yellowstone and Zion use timed entry tickets, reservation and shuttle systems to cut through congestion. Arches National Park routinely reaches capacity by 9 a.m. and sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m.
Local park use is doubling and tripling, according to Kristine Erickson, Grand Traverse County parks and recreation director. Michigan state recreation showed a 30 percent jump in visitor traffic 2019-2020 and is already up about 25 percent this year, said Ron Olson, Michigan parks and recreation chief for the Department of Natural Resources.
Not surprisingly, nature’s facilities are showing the wear-and-tear. Illegal campsites and trails built through fragile environments, cars parked wherever, trails littered with granola bar wrappers and dog poop.
As we market ourselves as a “wellness destination” we must keep our natural bounty from paying the price of growth. Education on “leave no trace” practices, better signage and enforcement are key to keeping our public lands in shape.
Make it easy to be good with maintained trash barrels and outhouses at trailheads. Use signs to direct trail traffic and post warnings around fragile systems. Building more parks in tandem with residential growth will ease the pressure, and we support these efforts wholeheartedly.
Increased use isn’t in itself a bad thing. It’s more people enjoying nature, and people who enjoy it tend to want to protect and invest in it.
But newcomers need to be educated on how to leave the park better than they found it. This land was made for you and me, but we want to see the land, not pick up after you. Our public nature can only take so much before we crush what we came for.