The Richmond Register

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July 31, 2013

America’s wilderness gets crowded

PROVIDENCE — Ever since Yosemite National Park won fame for its natural Western splendor, it's gone on many a register of things to see before one dies. It remains a bucket-list favorite, only nowadays there are millions, if not billions, more buckets. The park's crowds have become such that officials there are struggling to find ways to ease the crush of humanity.

Hypertourism has overwhelmed many of America's natural attractions. My recent memories of Rocky Mountain National Park includes crawling along the drives -- congestion turning into gridlock when an elk approached the road and posed for pictures.

And though Texas has big spaces, even its country roads get overrun when the bluebonnets turn green fields into gorgeous seas of indigo. In my pilgrimage, I didn't trespass on private property, as many bluebonnet seekers do, but my car was one of many clogging the roadside. And I added to the long lines buying funnel cakes in Chappell Hill, a historic town outside Houston and home to a bluebonnet festival.

Back East, the heavy foot traffic on the trails up New Hampshire's White Mountains have long troubled some environmentalists. And non-wilderness, but still nature-oriented, seaside places are seeing their high-tide tourist seasons turn into floods. Getting around Nantucket this time of year is pure agony.

Three things have happened. One is a population explosion that has not spared the United States, regardless of what you hear from conservatives pumping panic over a mythical "baby bust." This creates a far larger pool of potential domestic tourists, many within driving distance of these attractions.

Another is the growing prosperity elsewhere in the world that has created new markets for U.S. tourism. The burgeoning middle classes of China, Brazil and India now account for the largest growth of foreign tourists, a total 67 million last year. A friend recently visiting Glacier National Park in Montana recalls hiking the arduous trail to Iceberg Lake alongside dozens of Chinese tourists.

The third factor may be cultural. Two generations ago, Americans might pile their family into a car for a low-key visit to a national park. Since then, cheap airfares have made formerly remote places more accessible, fostering the fast-paced three-day weekend.

Many more Americans are also making workouts in natural settings part of their routine. Some so strongly value the environs that they build a second (or third) home near a trailhead or ski slope. Thus, once-isolated towns have become resort communities, attracting even more people.

What can be done to improve the wilderness experience, if anything? In Yosemite, the National Park Service has put forth a wise plan to ease the congestion, particularly in the magnificent Yosemite Valley. Its proposals include closing some horse, bicycle and raft rental facilities in the area -- plus shutting swimming pools. California does not lack for swimming pools.

The macro-solution is: sage population policies here and abroad. Though the United States has a fairly low fertility rate, its population, now 314 million, is projected to grow by almost 19 million through 2050. Keeping our birthrates and immigration numbers in check would go far to stem the tide.

We don't want to discourage tourism. These rural areas -- think the struggling towns near chic Bend, Ore. -- could use the economic boost. And we do need controlled immigration. But it would be a shame if America's most prized open spaces lost their ability to stun us with their glorious sense of isolation.

We know that the typical visitor experience at Yosemite is not quite the primeval fantasy we see on the calendars. But still, the greatest memories should be nature's majesty, not a monumental traffic jam.

© 2013 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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