Neither fire, smoke, nor searing heat can stop the public land swarms

Data Dump: Update on national park visits; June climate numbers; housing

You wanna know how old I am? I’m old enough to remember, way, way back to the days of yore, when federal officials and gateway-town chambers of commerce were wringing their hands in concern over a nationwide decline in visitation to national parks. Over a 13-year period, visitor numbers to 58 “nature-based” national parks—Arches, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and so on—dropped by 7 percent, even as the nation’s population was increasing.

It was so worrisome that a few economists wrote a report on it, titled, you guessed it, “Declining National Park Visitation,” published in the Journal of Leisure Research. The authors acknowledged that the decline was partly attributable to “videophilia,” as well as “changing childhood socialization that includes less nature play.” But just as important, they concluded, was the stagnation of middle-class incomes combined with the rising cost of visiting the parks. Americans simply could no longer afford national park vacations.

Those, of course, were ancient times. That report was published in … (checks notes) … 2014. Yes, you read that correctly: Folks were freaking about a lack of people in the parks just seven years ago. We can probably check that concern off our list.

Even as the report was being published, visitation trends were swinging back upward. It might have had to do with the falling gasoline price, due to the global crash in oil prices. Marketing campaigns such as Utah’s “Mighty Five,” launched in part to reverse the decline, were effective and then some. And the buildup to the 2016 National Park Service’s centennial celebration brought more attention to the parks. By 2018, overcrowding at the parks, especially those in Utah’s Canyon Country, had become a major point of concern. But we hadn’t seen nothing, yet. After a brief respite during the spring of 2020, visitor numbers surged, and the same nature-based parks that were losing traffic a decade ago are now getting flooded, and neither searing heat, smoky skies, nor flash floods can drive folks away.

Visitation during the first six months of this year to the nine national parks I surveyed across the West was up by 1.4 million over the same period in 2019 (2020’s numbers were skewed by COVID-19). That’s saying something, considering that even back then a lot of folks—me, included—were ringing the alarms about overcrowded parks. Zion’s year-to-date numbers are up by a whopping 400,000 over 2019, which was a record at the time. More than 750,000 people swarmed Grand Teton National Park during the month of June—that’s 25,000 per day. Most worrisome to me is the 25 percent jump in visitation at Canyonlands National Park, a place that once was considered too undeveloped to attract big numbers.

But what do you do about it? It’s a quandary, for sure: It’s a good thing that folks are getting outside and developing a love for America’s quasi-wild places. Maybe they’ll be more inclined to fight to save those same places. And yet, that love is likely to be tarnished by traffic jams and crowds. Increasing entrance fees will turn parks into preserves for the wealthy. Limiting visitor numbers to crowded parks may just send the overflow into adjacent public lands, where there are no rangers to keep crowds from wrecking the place.

I’m sure someone’s writing up a report analyzing the surge and trying to find solutions. In the meantime, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will be grappling with the problem today, July 28, starting at 10 a.m. Eastern. Interested folks can watch it here.

Well, I guess there is one way to keep visitors at bay: A massive rainstorm that turns an already negligible entrance road into a raging river.


Or, you can get rid of a good portion of the water in a place where recreation depends upon it. During the first four months of this year visitation at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—a.k.a. Lake Powell—was down significantly from previous years. Thanks to low water levels (see Monday’s Land Desk dispatch for details), launching big boats in the reservoir was challenging all spring. Now, it’s pretty much impossible:

It’s safe to assume that visitation to Powell will now plummet. Me, I’m already planning my visit.

And in case you were wondering what caused Lake Powell to shrink to its lowest levels since it was still being filled in the 1960s, consider this time series of drought in the Colorado River Basin over the past 20 years.


Nor did the ungodly heat of June help much. Here are a few takeaways from the Monthly Climate Report put out by the National Centers for Environmental Information:

72.6 F: Average U.S. temperature during June 2021, 4.2 F above the 20th century average, making it the warmest June in 127 years of record-keeping.

392: The number of all time high temperature records that were tied or broken during June 2021, all of which occurred west of the Mississippi.

130 F: Temperature at Death Valley on July 9, 2021, tying the record set in 2020.

120 F: Temperature on July 11 at the aptly named Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, beating the previous record—set a day earlier—by 1 F.

118 F: June 27 temperature at Dallesport Airport in Washington, crushing the record set the day before.

107 F: High temperature at Hovenweep National Monument for two days in a row in early July, tying the all-time record.

0.00: Inches of precipitation received in Los Angeles and Kings County, California, in June 2021.

104 F: Temperature at Capitol Reef National Park on July 10. Apparently it didn’t discourage folks from showing up in droves. A couple of weeks later, the park was slammed with intense rain and resulting flash floods.


And now, for a few more depressing stats from the second quarter real estate market reports.

$720,000: Median sale price for an in-town home in Durango, Colorado, almost exactly double the 2011 median price.

$150,000: Annual income necessary to afford a median-priced home in Durango with a $20,000 down payment.

$41,000: Salary for a first-year teacher in Durango’s 9R School District.

$440,000: Median sales price for Durango townhomes and condominiums.

$2.75 million: Median sales price for a single-family home in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming.

74: Number of sales in Jackson Hole’s Luxury Market—$5 million and above—during the first half of 2021.

$1.4 million: The price of the least expensive home currently on the market in the Jackson Hole region (1000 sf, 2 br, 2 ba, built in 1977).

$69.5 million: The price of the most expensive home currently on the market in Jackson Hole (8,000 sf, 7 br, 4 ba, with a 3,700 sf guest house).

$6,200: Monthly rent for a Jackson townhome listed in Jackson Hole Daily’s July 28 classified ads.

$18; $20: Advertised hourly wage for housekeepers and dishwashers, respectively, at Jackson-area establishments with employment ads in the Jackson Hole Daily on July 28.

150: Number of full-time employment ads in the Jackson Hole Daily ads when referenced on July 28.

1987: The last year in which Jackson housing was affordable to the average worker, according to the Teton County Housing Director, as quoted in SKI magazine.