2015 was a banner year for the five national parks in Utah, with each setting records for visitor attendance. The Utah Office of Tourism credits its “Mighty 5” campaign for the increase in tourism. The Office launched the marketing plan in 2005 to bring national and international focus to the parks: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. Tourism has increased 44 percent in the past decade, according to the Office
According to the National Parks Service, Zion had 3.4 million visitors in 2015, up from 3.1 million in 2014. Bryce had 1.5 million by September and was anticipating heavy winter visitation, projected to exceed the 2014 total of 1.5 million. Other parks report similar record-breaking figures.
Such heavy visitation has caused a strain on park resources, however. Unlike Zion and Bryce, which operate shuttle bus service in the summer, thus enabling more visitors to come into the crowded parks, Arches has narrow winding roads which shuttles cannot use. So all traffic at Arches is in personal vehicles. Space for parking is limited. Visitors access the only entrance to the park by entering from a busy highway. On Memorial Day the cars waiting to get in formed a long line that blocked the state highway. Through traffic was at a standstill. Working with local law enforcement personnel, rangers had to close the park until space cleared at the top.
Even though the Zion and Bryce shuttles are packed, many visitors still prefer to use private vehicles. Several times during the summer, both parks had to enforce temporary closures because all parking spaces were full. Zion even allowed shoulder parking in some areas which are usually off limits. This unusually heavy traffic causes wear and tear on the park, where heavy visitation is apparent through grasses worn away at view sites, road shoulders degenerating, overflowing trash bins and so on.
Little relief seems in sight, with park budgets cut so that only vital maintenance occurs, visitors are offered fewer interpretative programs, and park law officers face serious issues such as drug abuse and the carriage of guns into the parks.
Although many parks have designed Visitor Use Management programs, the National Park Service reports that more than $278 million in projects cannot be completed because of a shortage of funds and personnel.
Park management is bracing for a heavy visitor year, perhaps as much as double the 2015 attendance, because 2016 is the Centennial Anniversary Celebration of the National Park Service.
Add to this that parks which were normally quiet in winter now have busloads of foreign visitors and visits from families or college students on vacation. What was once a quiet time for reflection and repairs is now another part of a year round season, not quite as hectic as summer but still busy.