COVID and industrial-scale tourism

Even a pandemic can't keep the masses away from the Mighty 5 for long

A few years ago, when a publication with which I have long worked decided to dip its fingers into hosting conservation-minded tours of the West, they asked me to go along on a tour of southern Utah to provide editorial color. I was flattered enough to say yes almost immediately—it was only later that I learned that the rest of the editorial team had turned up their noses at the thought and that I was a last resort. Whatever. It still would be fun to regale travelers with tales of my zany adventures in Standing Up Country, as C. Crompton aptly called it in his 1964 book of the same name. 

When I saw the itinerary, however, I was a little miffed. It turned out that we’d be spending the bulk of the time visiting three of Utah’s national parks, which by my reckoning were not only overdeveloped and sterile, but also had become increasingly crowded in recent years, thanks in part to the state’s massive, global “Mighty 5” marketing campaign. More than 20,000 people on average flocked to Zion National Park each day in July 2019. Industrial-scale tourism, more cheekily known as “wreckreation,” had come to Standing Up Country to roost, and I wanted no part of it—I suddenly understood why my colleagues had turned down the offer for a free trip.

The Mighty 5 marketing campaign was launched in 2013. It had a quick and substantial effect. COVID-19 brought visitation numbers back down, but only during the spring months. Data: NPS.

By then it was too late to back out, however. I was comforted by the rest of the itinerary, which included sojourns into a few quieter places and a stay in Boulder, Utah, where we’d dine at Hell’s Backbone Grill, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. As we set off from Durango I was further reassured by the fact that the trip’s real guide was capable, knowledgeable, and a really nice guy and the nine clients were not only smart, curious, and conservation-minded folks, but they also were not what I’d call your typical national-park sort of tourist. 

As we made our way through my homeland I talked about history and politics and land-use. Prudently I refrained from telling tales about the time my buddies and I had a collective gastro-intestinal crisis in F#$*hell Canyon after eating a batch of beans that we had cooked and dehydrated ourselves; or how we once threw a bunch of trail-cairns off a precipice, resulting in another friend getting lost and falling off a cliff; or about the time we drank a jug of Ernest & Julio Gallo on a patch of snowy slickrock and got into a campfire brawl over a story about great white coyotes, people-eating poodles, and fire-poking sticks*. But I did give a talk detailing the long and contentious debate over the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument, including the most legitimate argument against it, namely that it could bring industrial-scale tourism to the seldom-visited nooks and crannies of southeastern Utah. “You’ll see why that's a concern when we get to Zion,” I told them. 

Non-Mighty 5 parks and monuments—even ones far away from the Mighty 5—also saw visitation jumps after 2013. This could be spillover, but also may indicate that other causes, such as a strong Euro, may have bolstered national park tourism during those years. Note that visitation at Natural Bridges National Monument, which is the best proxy for visitation to Bears Ears, still has lower numbers than in the 1990s. Data: NPS; Chart: Land Desk.

A national monument designation does not guarantee that visitation will increase any more than it guarantees that the monument will be covered with paved roads and trails and visitors centers and fancy lodges. Plenty of national monuments remain undeveloped and receive very few visitors—our little tour visited a couple of those, in fact. However, drawing a line around and slapping a label on a place does make it more marketable and more likely to be the target of the Mighty 5 campaign or something like it. 

Our first national park stop was Capitol Reef, one of the Mighty 5 where visitation has shot up in recent years. But it’s also a big park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, aside from a few of the most established areas, it wasn’t that crowded. And when we did encounter people on our hikes, they weren’t macho, Patagucci-clad dudes and dudettes trying to get their stoke on, but normal folks leisurely enjoying some of the most spectacular country in the world. My favorite was a French family, the father wearing dress shoes and a blazer, strolling along a sandy wash as if it were the Champs-Élysées. 

Bryce Canyon was, well, a zoo—but by then I had repressed my misanthropic mood and had resigned myself to the craziness. I even got a kick out of the twin hula-hoopers taking selfies with hoops and hoodoos. I was one of them now, one of the nearly 2.6 million people who visited Bryce Canyon that year, twice as many as had come six years earlier. With more people came more impacts, from increasing air pollution and climate-warming carbon emissions from the stream of cars carrying the people to and from the trailheads and overlooks, to trail traffic jams, to disturbance of wildlife, to trampled cryptobiotic soils, to a scourge of human waste and toilet paper scattered across the slickrock on non-park public lands that experienced a spillover effect.

It’s no wonder, then, that some folks worry that a Bears Ears National Monument might one day look like Bryce Canyon. And it’s no surprise that they find it maddening when they’re told not to worry because tourism can be lucrative, communities next to public lands are more wealthy than others, and the masses spend billions each year on outdoor recreation. But it’s misguided for them to think that not designating a national monument somehow will keep industrial tourism at at bay. 

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In today’s Instagram-centric world, a place doesn’t need a marketing campaign—or a national monument or park designation—to draw the masses. It just needs to be Instagram-able, to be fetching in a square frame on a phone’s screen. Take Horseshoe Bend, the place below Glen Canyon Dam where some 1 million people-per-year pull off the highway and make the short, sandy, hot trek to the overlook to do nothing more than snap a selfie with the iconic image of the Colorado River in the background. Or Ice Lake Basin, a lovely alpine gem above Silverton that was overrun by humanity (and a wildfire) last summer, the trailhead parking lot choked with hundreds of cars on some days. Ice Lake is not in or near a national monument, nor has it been the subject of an organized ad campaign. It simply looks really nice on Instagram—so long as you crop out the ubiquitous scraps of toilet paper before posting. 

Only the places that fall below some arbitrary standard of aesthetics are immune. Everywhere else—and that means just about all of the public lands—will continue to get more visitors, maybe even industrial-scale tourism, with or without a national monument designation. It’s already arrived in parts of the Bears Ears, which is one of the reasons that a national monument was proposed in the first place. Yes, a monument designation could increase visitation, but it also may be the most feasible way of mitigating the impacts of the crowds that are already there or on their way—so long as it comes with a strong management plan that limits visitation and recreation in sensitive areas when necessary.

After all, not even a pandemic could keep the masses away for long. Annual visitation to the Mighty 5 and other regional parks, monuments, and public lands dropped considerably during spring of 2020, thanks to COVID-19-related closures, lockdowns, and so forth, spurring the proliferation of “nature is healing” memes. But in late summer the floodgates were re-opened, people poured into the parks and onto public lands, and nature got trammeled again. The aforementioned Ice Lake was busier in late summer and fall than anytime in memory, and Zion, Arches, and even relatively obscure Natural Bridges National Monument saw record or near-record-breaking numbers during the latter months of the year. 

The first two months of 2020 saw record-breaking visitation numbers at Zion and other parks. Visitation dropped off considerably as the pandemic spread, but it rebounded strongly in late summer. Visitation for the last four months of the year shattered previous records in Zion, partially offsetting the pandemic slump. The trend was mirrored to various extents at other parks in the region. Data: NPS; Chart: Land Desk.

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It was during a similarly crowded, pre-pandemic time that we made the final, brief stop on our tour in the heart of Zion National Park. I went into it with an open mind. The trip thus far had been far more enjoyable than I had expected. I had grown fond of my traveling companions, learned a lot about my favorite part of the world, and even had shed much of my disdain for national parks.

Nevertheless, as we battled for a parking space and then boarded the stiflingly-hot shuttles buses for the trip to the ever-popular Narrows, I was filled with dread. I spent the entire few hours in a state of misanthropic claustrophobia, horrified by the crush of humanity, the crowds clamoring to get on the shuttles, the knuckleheads who insisted on feeding obese squirrels despite all the signs warning them not to do it. It brought to mind something Winston Hurst, a southeastern Utah archaeologist and preservationist, once told me: To him, national monuments and parks “feel like theme parks that have an artificial stasis imposed upon them. They feel dead. It’s the death of Place.” 

And yet, I was also giddy about my surroundings, and found myself gawking, awestruck, at the dramatic landscape, at the way the light lingered on the sheer cliff faces, at the way a spider web stretched between the delicate petals of a scarlet-red lobelia flower growing from a crack in the stone. That I was sharing that beauty with some 17,000 other people that day did not, in itself, diminish the beauty in any way. Sure, I would have preferred to be there alone or with just a few friends and would have preferred to be there before all the roads and parking lots and shuttle buses were there, but, with apologies for anthropomorphizing, I kind of doubt that the Place really gives a damn whether all those people are looking at it or not. The masses have an impact, of course, but to imply that they somehow suck the soul out of the place, to think that it is any less sublime because of the numbers of people, is to underestimate the power and strength of Beauty and of Place. 

*You can read these tales and more in my upcoming book, Sagebrush Empire: How a remote Utah county became the battlefront of the public land wars (Torrey House, Aug. 2021). Founding Members of the Land Desk will receive a free, signed copy upon its release.