The Beast Underneath: Tourism is fueling erosion at America’s parks

A trailer stop and hotel area which can be found outside of Yosemite national park, California. Photo by Charlie Ambler

As tourism at national and state parks rises, so does officials’ fear or worsening erosion.

By Charlie Ambler

The calls from the National Park Service in Yellowstone began going out at around 8 a.m. on June 11, 2022.

 “Major flooding has prompted unprecedented erosion and has led to the devastation of multiple roads and areas of Yellowstone national park, or something like that,” said the previous Yellowstone Superintendent, Dan Wenk.

According to the Earth Observatory,  because Yellowstone received close to three inches of rain and had experienced warming temperatures, it had created the perfect storm which inevitably led the park onto a pathway of devastation.

Yellowstone, which has been certified as a national park for 150 years, has lost access to most openings, especially in the Northern and Eastern regions.

“Erosion is not a laughing matter. Unfortunately, the flooding has placed tourism into the south region of the park only. Tourists may not have been a direct cause of the flooding, but they will accelerate erosion in the south, due to this heavy concentration of traffic. This is a crisis,” said previous Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk.

“Scientists, such as myself, like to view the tourism issue as an iceberg,” said  Stephen McCool.

McCool was a professor at The School of Forestry, Wildland Recreation Management, and the Department of Society and Conservation at the University of Montana.  He joined the faculty of the School of Forestry in 1977 until retiring after nearly 25 years.

“The tip of the iceberg are things you can see. Waste from tourists is one thing. But the most dangerous part of the iceberg is the part you cannot see. The part lurking below the water. That is erosion. You cannot see it, until it is collapsing within itself and at that  point, well it is irreversible,” said McCool.

Erosion is a very complex phenomenon, especially when it comes to over-tourism’s effects on its acceleration.

“Erosion mainly comes from tourists and it stems from two areas: concentration of traffic and people walking in places where they should not be,” said Wenk.

Specifically, the two areas are unlawful trailblazing and tourists abusing pre-made trails.

 “A little bit of use can cause a whole lot of impact. The curve is not linear. It does not take too many people,” said McCool.

“The first causation of tourism-fueled erosion at America’s parks would be that of, “unlawful trailblazing,” said Wenk.

Wenk is referring to the tourists at parks deciding to go off-trail. A common term for these paths are ‘social trails.’ The reasons for this are not countless. Tourists need to get a better view of a certain area at a park and push aside any hesitant thoughts. “When in Rome, right?,” said Wenk hesitantly laughing.

Emma Olson is a park guide at the Indiana Dunes national park in Porter County, Indiana.

“Indiana, well we have lots of erosion issues. Our main feature is our sand dunes off Lake Michigan.  Rising lake levels and tourists don’t mix well. Climate change and rising water levels have pushed erosion to the top of our priority list,” said Olson.

Olsen stated that she wished to make claims on behalf of herself and not her overarching employer, the National Park Service.

Specifically, Olson mentioned an area where certain dunes are completely off-limits to tourists and, ironically enough, they have attracted the most tourists.

“We have marram grass that maintains the structure of the biosphere on these dunes, and tourists have a complete disregard for this aspect of the park because they are so intrigued,” said Olson. “The issue has grown to the point where park rangers have had to hand out fees nearing the $300- $500 range.”

Marram grass, which its biological term is Ammophilia Breviligulata fern, helps stabilize and support the Indiana Dunes. Tourists have also been known to cut and take these ferns as souvenirs.

Yellowstone and Yosemite also face the issue of unlawful trailblazing.

“Take Grand Prismatic. It is gorgeous but you truly cannot see the full beauty unless you were up in a high place. People were utilizing the surrounding area and bushwacking to get a birds eye view in the looming hills and mountains,” said Wenk when asked about previous areas that were heavily affected by social trails.

“The view is in a geyser basin. Erosion began to sweep right through the area because of these people going off the trails and trying to get this better view,” said Wenk.

The second issue that causes tourists to fuel an alarming rate of erosion is the collapse of controlled trails, due to tourists stepping on-and-off of the sides.

“Yellowstone had implemented a yearly system where two trail crews work like crazy in the spring, before the park opens for the summer, clearing the trails of any debris,” said Wenk. “Now it has become an every-day task. The second something winds up in the way of a trail, tourists don’t think twice about hopping off the trail, stepping on the critical vegetation, and hopping back on the designated path.”

When looking at the solutions to erosion, “there is no such thing as a perfect ending,” said McCool.

Erosion at Grand Prismatic and the Geyser basin area of Yellowstone was solved over the course of a few years, but the longevity is questionable.

The Yellowstone National Park Service took control of the situation as tourists accelerated erosion in that part of the park to unprecedented levels. They developed a solution inorder to protect the hills surrounding the Grand Prismatic in 2016, with the two year construction of the Overlook trail.

“We could control the damage and erosion to these sides of these hills. These hillsides will not be denoted of vegetation because we gave a controlled access that was respectful of resources. It took a crew two years to build. It took years because we had to make sure this was not going to lead to erosion, the issue we wished to avoid,” said Matt Ohlen, a Park Ranger at Yellowstone.

“So years ago we made the decision to control this area. We implemented a structure and trail that could allow you to hike up and see over the entire valley. See the difference between a controlled access space and compare it to people going wherever they want,” said Wenk.

Park Ranger Olsen at Indiana Dunes national park, called their erosion control system the “leave no trace principles.”

“Our leave no trace principles are implemented for tourists to follow. Stay on trail, pack out trash, zero-music tolerance, do not provoke wildlife.”

Olsen continued by stating, “We have a bio-diverse park. We are the fourth most diverse in terms of park life in North America. With our implementation of this education system, we hope that tourists can learn their effects on erosion, and make the wise decision.”

However, McCool has a different point of view.  “I question the longevity of things like trail reconstruction and traffic movement systems. Yellowstone just broke records, peaking at 4 million visitors in 2021. This issue is not going away no matter how many trials we open.”