MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One pandemic trend that has not ended - a huge spike in visits to America's national parks. A few parks have responded by going to timed ticketed entry, meaning you can't just drive in at will anymore. Arches National Park in Utah is considering that. This spring, it started filling up and closing its gates most mornings. That has meant tourists have had to wait up to five hours on some days to get in. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The sun is rising on Delicate Arch, a hulking mass of red sandstone you might remember having as a screensaver. The two-mile climb for a real-life family photo beneath the 52-foot tall behemoth is totally worth it for Judy Lee.
JUDY LEE: I just realized I need to be in better shape (laughter) exercise more regularly.
SIEGLER: She and her daughter, Lindsey Cho, are visiting from Southern California.
LINDSEY CHO: It's almost our turn. Yay.
SIEGLER: The anticipation is real. Delicate Arch in this soft morning light is awesome. Spin around, though, and there's a less inspiring view - a line nearing 100 people deep all waiting to take the exact same photo that makes it look to their friends back home that they're here in solitude.
CHO: I think people have been inside a lot for the past year, so they're eager to come out into nature.
SIEGLER: Cho and her mom don't mind mingling in crowds.
LEE: I miss doing that. You get to meet people from all over.
SIEGLER: The Park Service appreciates their patience as it grapples with how to manage an explosion in visitation at parks from Utah to Maine since the pandemic. In Arches, there is record visitation this summer even without the dependable crowds of Europeans.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, I'm sorry if I'm in your way.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, no.
SIEGLER: These red rock paths are a zoo of sweaty hikers in sun hats promising their tired kids that that arch is just around the next corner.
Meanwhile, up in Yellowstone, social media is a horror show of photos showing miles-long lines of cars and RVs idling at the entrances - in Yosemite and Zion, litter and human feces along popular trails. By this point in the morning, the entrance gates at Arches are now temporarily closed because all the parking lots here are full. On the path to Windows Arch, Amy Hill of North Carolina says she heard at her motel to get in before 7:00 a.m. or risk not seeing Arches at all. It's high on her bucket list.
AMY HILL: I think that would be better, to have a reservation and know that you were going to be able to get in rather than getting here and not being able to get in at all.
SIEGLER: A reservation system was proposed here a few years back, then scrapped due to controversy that it would limit public access and hurt tourist businesses. But today, Arches feels like it's at a breaking point. Ticketing is back on the table, along with other ideas like mandatory shuttles or even a new road. The park's chief of visitor services, Angie Richman, says the current daily closures aren't meant to be a long-term solution.
ANGIE RICHMAN: Initially it was intended to just happen on our busy holiday weekends. And prior to COVID, that was the case. But since we've been so busy, we've now had to close almost every day since March.
SIEGLER: And these historic crowds are coming at a really bad time. National parks are struggling to fill positions - everyone from senior rangers and law enforcement right down to the workers Richman can't find to staff the entry gates and collect fees. The Park Service has been plagued by budget woes for years.
RICHMAN: We have staffing shortages kind of across the board right now. And it's one of the things I spend a lot of my time on, is trying to recruit and hire new employees.
SIEGLER: The Park Service hasn't even had a permanent director in more than four years. The Biden administration has yet to nominate one either.
In nearby Moab, help wanted signs are also posted all along Main Street, including at Back of Beyond Books. Owner Andy Nettell spent most of his career as a Park Service ranger.
ANDY NETTELL: I don't think they've done a very good job of seeing the trends and meeting those trends in terms of how do we manage these millions of people? We can't just increase the size of the parking lots.
SIEGLER: People in this famous adventure-tourism town are now worried that long term, visitors might stop coming because services are limited and the natural beauty is getting trampled. The crowds threaten the very thing national parks are supposed to be protecting.
Ricky Hays and his wife, Ollie, are on a road trip from Virginia.
OLLIE HAYS: I'm a little annoyed with crowds.
RICKY HAYS: When we got to the first stop inside the national park this morning, there was only two spots already at 7:00 in the morning. And then we get here, and people are already parking kind of crazy.
SIEGLER: The Hays are suddenly pining for a previous stop of theirs in a wilderness area in Colorado. It was serene and mostly empty. Ollie says maybe it's time Americans spread themselves out a bit. There's more to see than just national parks. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Moab, Utah.
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