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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Too much of a good thing

The popularity of our national parks is putting stress on their natural beauty

Hikers on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion

Hikers on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park, where hordes visit every year. Photo Credit: AP / Trent Nelson

We had skirted the shore of a shimmering pond and squirmed our way through the jumble of rocks aptly named the Lemon Squeezer.

Now we were headed uphill on a narrow trail that snaked through bushes before emerging on a series of rock ledges.

A short scramble brought us to the top, with its convenient slabs of granite to rest on. Well-placed trees framed the wonderful views to the west, across Harriman State Park and the rolling hills of the lower Hudson River Valley.

I was scanning the horizon when I saw them, two other groups of hikers already at this modest summit. And my first thought, as it almost always is, was:

What are they doing here?

And my second thought, as it always is, was: They could say the same about us.

One of the reasons people take to trails is for the solitude. Nature regenerates. “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees,” wrote naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau.

I’ve been hiking since the 1970s, in the Northeast, across the country and in Canada. And it’s pretty clear that over those 45 or so years, more people are catching on. The trails are more crowded. Pure solitude is a little harder to find.

I’ve had to train myself to understand that that’s largely a good thing. It might impinge on my moment of personal transcendence, but when a whole bunch of people are outdoors and enjoying nature, there’s a greater good at work.

But there are limits. That’s become increasingly clear in some of our national parks, which are struggling with a classic good news-bad news scenario.

Business has never been better. Last year, the National Park Service saw a record 331 million visitors. That number will probably increase this year, with 40 million people coming in August alone. But they have brought with them lots of problems — traffic congestion, litter, strains on resources natural and man-made (think portable toilets), people going off-trail and with their repeated footsteps carving new trails that increase erosion and damage vegetation.

One of the parks hit hardest is beautiful Zion, in Utah. It’s one of our smaller gems, which means absorbing crowds is more difficult. Zion hosted 4.3 million visitors last year, a whopping 60 percent increase in 10 years.

Photos of Zion astonish. The park is gorgeous. But, oh, the humanity. Endless lines of hikers snake up iconic Angels Landing, its chains and switchbacks up a slender fin of rock leading to stunning views of the valley below. Hordes wade upstream through the exquisite canyon carved by the Virgin River. I’ve hiked both in quieter times. This influx tests the limits of understanding.

It also tests theories of management. Zion is considering requiring reservations to enter the park, a first for the national park system. Officials received 1,600 comments on the proposal. After a review, they’ll release a new plan for more comment. For someone raised on the parks’ ethos of access for anyone pretty much anytime, this step is kind of hard to conceive.

That’s not the only strain facing our national parks. President Donald Trump has proposed a 13 percent cut in NPS’ $2.9 billion budget. The backlog of maintenance, some of it critical, exceeds $11 billion. And just as unprecedented numbers of people seek out our national treasures, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposes to shrink some of them and limit access to others.

Another summer hike took us up Crane Mountain, near Lake George. We had the summit mostly to ourselves, except for the pair of hikers who were leaving as we arrived, and the other pair that came as we departed. With each, we exchanged silent smiles.

The joy of solitude. The thrill of shared understanding.

We do love our parks. Let’s care for them with love.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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