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National parks are facing unprecedented pressures inside and outside their borders from population growth, homeland security concerns and Americans’ insatiable desires for conveniences such as hotels, restaurants, stores, cell phones and vacation homes, according to a review conducted by the Associated Press.
Within their boundaries, the parks are generally calm, placid and among the world’s most beautiful places. The National Park Service said 95% of visitors rate their experience as good or excellent.
Nonetheless, 30 cellular phone towers have been erected inside parks; one is in view of Yellowstone’s famed Old Faithful geyser. At Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain, an emergency radio communications tower has been constructed above Civil War cannons.
At Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, officials have built an $18 million, 30-mile steel-and-concrete vehicle barrier to slow illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Fifteen sea and lake parks have acquiesced to recreational enthusiasts and are allowing water scooters and other personal watercraft, or are expected to do so.
At the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the clatter of tourist helicopters and whine of planes compete with the rush of the river, the warbling of birds and the whispers of the breeze.
Just outside park borders, the pressures are more dramatic from construction, population explosions, pollution, exotic species – even illegal aliens.
An AP analysis of census data shows that more than 1.3 million people since 1990 have moved into counties surrounding six of the best-loved parks: Gettysburg, Everglades, Glacier, Yellowstone, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains.
The average number of people per square mile in those counties has grown by one-third. The four urban counties around the Florida Everglades show the most dramatic gains. But even in the remote areas of Glacier, the number of people per square mile has risen from eight in 1990 to 11 in 2005.
Likewise, park visitation has soared from 79 million in 1960 to 273 million today.
Pollution that has drifted scores of miles into parks is affecting visitors, plant life and wildlife.
Last year, the air breathed by park visitors exceeded eight-hour safe levels of ozone 150 times in 13 parks, from California to Virginia. Overall, air at one-third of parks monitored by the Park Service continues to worsen even as the government puts in place pollution controls aimed at clearing the air by 2064.
Foreign species of plants, animals, bugs and worms that travel via vehicles and visitors now invade 2.6 million acres of national parkland and are destroying natural resources.
“If there’s no place that is clear and clean, if there’s no place that is dark and starry, where does that leave us?” asks Chad Moore, program manager for the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team.
“If we can’t protect the best parts of America in national parks, then we’re certainly not going to be able to protect them anywhere else.”