Loving Nature to Death: Parks are struggling with the tourism influx

South entrance view of Crawford Notch state park, New Hampshire. Photo by Charlie Ambler
A south entrance view of Crawford Notch state park, New Hampshire. Photo by Charlie Ambler

The growing number of tourists at national and state parks have led many researchers to believe that sustainable tourism is an impossible dream.

By Charlie Brian Ambler

It is mid-June. The informal beginning of summer and tourist season at Yellowstone National Park. 

 Upon passing the heavy wooden sign that clearly states ‘Yellowstone National Park,’ there is something else. It is likely to catch the eye of any passersby. 

The roadsides are littered with signs. Signs that state: ‘Do not approach or feed wildlife,’ ‘North Entrances closed due to flooding,’ ‘Roadway collapse– keep left.’

The sights that once made these national and state parks pure have become blurred by the physical warning signs that are there to control and maintain the most unruly and damaging form of wildlife: tourists. 

National and state parks differ in sizes and topographical features, however both share the harsh reality which is that tourists are loving nature to death. National and state parks must shift the focus from tourism and business efforts towards preservation and conservation. 

The growing influx of traffic over the last few years has heavily impacted parks across the United States. In order to prevent a collapse of the biophysical sphere surrounding these parks, the idea of sustainable tourism must be undermined, and in turn, conservation efforts must be upheld.

There are three main areas where over-tourism has impacted parks the most. Erosion, the high production of waste, and the consistent wilful-negligence stemming from tourist’s actions. 

Two trucks entering a gateway into Yosemite national park, California. Photo by Charlie Ambler

“We are beginning to lose the balance between tourism and preservation,” said Dan Wenk, the previous Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. 

Wenk sits in his home office in Teton County, Wyoming. On his walls hang multiple National Park Service awards. A felt campaign hat, also known as a Stetson, hangs in between the awards. It is a clear and truthful signature that Dan Wenk has had a deeply rooted career as a national park ranger. More importantly, it signifies the weight and gravity behind his words.

Wenk had acted as Yellowstone park’s Superintendent for over 11 years, before being forced to retire after disagreements with the council concerning the need for more conservation efforts.  

“National parks, like Yellowstone, are reaching a tough point. I mean, just look at the rates of erosion seen across Yellowstone. It is concerning, but what is more concerning are the actions or lack of actions taken by many. I do not see much longevity behind sustainable tourism at the rate we’re going.” 

According to the National Park Service, established in 1916, they had always maintained a conscious effort towards sustainability when it came to tourism.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization has defined tourism sustainability as, “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

However, in recent years, the definition and term of tourism sustainability has become uprooted.

According to Richard Butler, “these so-called sustainable forms of tourism must go under a critical review, especially looking at the effects of inappropriate and excessive tourism developments within these biophysical spheres.”

Butler  is a bio-scientific researcher at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. He has numerous works published in MDPI Sustainability which has contributed to a shift in conservation efforts around the world. 

When asked how he views sustainable tourism and the tourism industry as a whole, he referred to it as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

According to Stephen F. McCool, a researcher at the School of Forestry in Montana, the limits of acceptable change was a model that helped support the concept of sustainable tourism, but did not transfer well into the ecosystems being managed.

“These limits of acceptable change have become heavily one-sided, and the tourism industry has become increasingly powerful in terms of setting the limit to what can be changed,” said McCool.   “Erosion is just the tip of the iceberg that is filled with issues stemming from tourists packing into these places.”


Erosion is one of the three main issues that is largely caused by over-tourism at state and national parks. Erosion can come from man-made, social trails, overly packed official trails, and high levels of automobile traffic.

“Almost all of these issues come down to tourists making a short-cut, which leads to more people using non-official trails instead of the official ones, and this leads to detrimental problems,” said Park Ranger Matt Olhen. 

Olhen has been an Education Specialist, under Yellowstone’s education department. He informs the general public about environmental updates at National Parks, specifically Yellowstone. 

“Erosion made by over-tourism on official trails can be maintained, but when tourists make their own, that is where things take a turn for the worst,” said Olhen.

The second issue relating to over-tourism at America’s parks is that of waste production. “We are meeting a tough threshold here at Yellowstone,” said Wenk when he was asked about the record-breaking cost of toilet paper usage at the park. Specifically, officials said that the park spent roughly $12,000 in toilet paper for the 2018 summer season.

“It is such a simple issue, use the facilities and not the forest beside you,” said Olhen. Tourism has resulted in unprecedented levels of garbage and waste. 

The final issue is that of wilful-negligence stemming from tourist’s presence and their actions at state and national parks. “Negligence from tourists has been fueled by this idea of sustainable tourism. Business has no place within fragile ecosystems,’ said Butler. “Tourists have been known to take photos of themselves too close to wildlife or cliffs, and sometimes they paid the ultimate price.”

In order to address the three issues and dismantle the false-hood behind the idea of sustainable tourism, further detail and coverage of the three issues stemming from high-levels of tourism must be analyzed deeply.

“Sustainable development and sustainability are so vague with so many definitions and misunderstandings of what is meant by the terms,” said Butler. “The use of the term and subsequent actions are often of little effectiveness in terms of protection or mitigation of unwanted and undesirable effects of tourism (and other forms of) development.”