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The stories of the splendor and wonders of the national parks have been told through countless poems, books, paintings, oral histories, documentaries and beyond. The lands and resources that were designated as Glacier National Park in 1910 have a vast number of stories that are held by the indigenous people who have inhabited these lands since time immemorial.

Today and in connection with this week’s Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit, I want to tell another of the national park stories, one rooted in Montana and based in numbers.

In the first year the government recorded visitors 1911, roughly 4,000 people visited the park. In 1916, the year that the National Park Service was created, almost 13,000 people went to Glacier. In 1919, the year that the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) was founded, that number was 19,000. The year that the Going to the Sun Road was completed, 1932, 53,000 people came to Glacier. Fast forward to 1999, the year Glacier’s last General Management Plan was finalized, 1.7 million people visited. When I moved to Montana in 2007, 2 million people visited. And during the Park Service centennial in 2016, Glacier experienced its highest number of visitors ever, 3.3 million people.

Amid this tremendous growth are numbers that haven’t changed. Glacier hasn’t gotten bigger since its designation. While there was development of campgrounds, hotels, chalets and roads in the park in the early years, not much has changed since the 1960s when only 700,000 visited. While total 2020 visitation is down given the pandemic, 1.6 million people still visited Glacier this year, even though half of the park is closed.

While this story of numbers is unique to Glacier, a similar tale could be told at any national park across the West. Zion started its mandatory shuttle system in 1997 when 2.4 million people visited each year, to relieve traffic and parking problems in the park. In 2019, 4.4 million people visited Zion. While the parks has made progress toward solving their traffic problem, numbers continue to highlight other serious problems in Zion with crowded trails, hours long waits for the shuttle and increasing damage and waste problems that come with that many people.

And visitation challenges continue to grow. We’ve seen videos of bison chasing visitors in Yellowstone, people trampling through geothermal features, campers in closed areas of the park and dogs illegally in the Glacier backcountry. This year, Yellowstone reported its second busiest August and busiest September on record, at a time when international travel is all but non-existent. What will the numbers and impacts look like when travel gets back to “normal?”

While there are big issues to address, there are also big opportunities, and those won’t be the same for every park or place or season. This summer, we saw Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks put temporary reservation systems in place. Acadia is currently piloting a reservation system for specific parking lots, and we continue to learn about how to implement these types of measures.

For national parks in Montana and beyond, there are next steps that we could all start taking, now. For example, we must engage gateway communities in discussions of how we can ensure sustainable visitation that protects resources and community character while supporting jobs and businesses. And in the case of parks like Yellowstone seeing record visitation just as the first snow fell, we need to rethink “shoulder seasons” and what that looks like for communities, for park staff and others.

All said and done, we must continue to evolve the relationships between people, parks and protection. We must ensure that we’re prioritizing the natural resources, which are at the heart of outdoor recreation and a vibrant outdoor economy while ensuring that we advance a fair and forward-thinking legacy for our public lands and for generations to come.

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Sarah Lundstrum is the Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.