Zion National Park ranks as the third busiest in the U.S. after another record-breaking year for visitation in 2017.
The Southern Utah park drew 4.5 million, according to National Park Service figures released Wednesday. Only Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, with 11.3 million visitors, and the Grand Canyon National Park, at 6.3 million, drew more.
Trying to limit overcrowding
The figures come as agency officials are considering major increases in entrance fees for Zion and other busy parks. Officials at Zion have implemented a new online reservation system and are considering implementing visitation caps and other ways to prevent overcrowding.
Zion jumped from fifth place in 2016, leapfrogging California's Yosemite and Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
Four of Utah's five national parks set new records for attendance in 2017; since 2012, the state's "Mighty Five" have seen a 66 percent increase in visitors. Bryce Canyon moved up to 12th nationally with 2.6 million visitors, Arches ranked 16th at 1.5 million, Capitol Reef was 21st with 1.2 million and Canyonlands 26th with 742,271.
Plan to increase entrance fees
Nationwide, nearly 330.9 million visitors were counted at the 379 national parks, monuments, recreation areas and other Park Service sites last year.
That falls just 89,000 short of the all-time record, set in 2016, when nearly 331 million were counted. That was the year the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary and maintained a yearlong campaign to boost visitation.
At the same time, park officials, operating on budgets that have barely grown in the years since widespread cuts as part of sequestration in 2010, report widespread issues keeping up with repair and maintenance.
That led the park service to release a plan last fall recommending that entrance fees more than double during the peak season at some of the nation's most popular parks, including Zion and Bryce Canyon. During roughly a five-month period at 17 parks, the entrance fee would be $70 per vehicle, $50 per motorcycle and $30 per person on foot. The current prices at parks such as Zion and Bryce Canyon, where fees were last increased in 2015, are $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $10 per individual.
The proposal was recommended as a way to help pay down a maintenance backlog that park officials say has reached more than $11 billion nationally, largely due to to record numbers of visitors who have come without much in the way of new funding allocations from Congress. Zion alone had reported $62.1 million in needed projects, much of it for road repairs.
But the idea of more than doubling fees has been controversial, with opponents arguing it would price out lower-income Americans, especially families, and make only a small impact on the maintenance backlog. More than 100,000 comments were received during a public comment period regarding the proposal.
“Our national parks belong to all of us, but the solution cannot be pricing some visitors out of them,” said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, in a written statement. “American families should not be forced to pay today for what Congress and the administration have failed to do.”
Additional criticism has come from tourism groups, conservation organizations and members of Congress.
"I strongly believe in preserving the natural beauty of these lands, and understand that comes at a cost," said U.S. Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah. "However, I am quite concerned that the proposed fee increase would make them inaccessible to many Utah families."
Dealing with the crowds
At Zion, officials were already developing a new visitor management plan, and drafts have already recommended an online reservation system that would limit how many people could enter the park at any given time.
Park officials have reported various problems accommodating the crowds, with Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh describing problems keeping up with parking, trail maintenance and basics like trash pickup.
The crowded conditions have regularly caused gridlock on state Route 9. Long lines of visitors sometimes must wait two hours or longer to enter the park or board shuttle buses.
“With increasingly concentrated use and overwhelmed facilities, we are concerned with health and safety issues, diminishing quality of visitor experiences and associated impacts to soils, vegetation, water, wildlife habitat, soundscapes and cultural resources,” Bradybaugh said in a written statement.
Officials are suggesting potential steps such as visitor caps, a permitting process for popular hikes like Angels Landing, and reservation requirements for park campgrounds.
Earlier this week, Zion announced its popular South Campground would move to a reservation-only system starting March 1, with reservations available through www.recreation.gov.
Top 10 most-visited national parks
1. Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee), 11,338,893.
2. Grand Canyon (Arizona), 6,254,238.
3. Zion (Utah), 4,504,812.
4. Rocky Mountain (Colorado), 4,437,215.
5. Yosemite (California), 4,336,890.
6. Yellowstone (Wyoming), 4,116,524.
7. Acadia (Maine), 3,509,271.
8. Olympic (Washington), 3,401,996.
9. Grand Teton (Wyoming), 3,317,000.
10. Glacier (Montana), 3,305,512.
Source: National Parks Service
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