In 1929, Stephen Tyng Mather, founder and first Director of the National Park Service, was in Yosemite National Park trying to convince concessioner D.J. Desmond to build a hotel in Yosemite Valley. Desmond demurred, concerned that lack of visitation to the parks would mean empty rooms and possible bankruptcy. Mather’s response was incredulous: “Why, look at those cars! There must be close to two hundred of them. Where’s your imagination, man? Some day there’ll be a thousand!”During the early years of the national parks, their remoteness and the nature of their hotels and transportation companies resulted in the well-to-do being the main visitors to the parks. One of Mather’s priorities after Congress created the National Park Service in 1916 (44 years after the first national park, Yellowstone, was established) was to make the parks more accessible to all citizens. Besides believing that it was the right thing to do, Mather understood that greater visitation would result in the parks having a larger constituency. And larger constituencies meant an easier time getting budgets through Congress.

Mather could not have anticipated just how successful his campaign would be. Some years before, a railroad agent had been brooding over the statistic that Americans were spending four hundred million dollars a year visiting Europe, and he came up with a slogan for a new campaign: “See America First.” The creation of the National Park Service and the admission of automobiles to the national parks coincided beautifully with this campaign. Prior to 1916, Yellowstone was welcoming about 20,000 visitors each year. In 1923, the year after it’s semicentennial, 100,000 visitors came to the park. The number of annual visitors rose dramatically after World War II, and visitation continues to rise. One
million visitors came to Yellowstone in 1948, two million in 1965, and three million in 1992.

The impact of this dramatic increase in park visitation has begun to show in many places, both in the natural and cultural areas of the parks as well as in what visitors believe the quality of their experience is. Many of the complaint letters that the park receives each year include comments on the crowded conditions, traffic jams, and lack of anticipated quiet and solitude. Natural resources are impacted by the increased number of people on trails, vehicles pulling off the roadways, harassment of wildlife (unintentionally for the most part, but still an impact to wildlife). Cultural resources are impacted, too. One of the most frequently asked questions during the tours of the historic Old Faithful Inn is why guests are not permitted access to the roof observation platform. In 1904, the year the Inn opened, 13,727 visitors came to Yellowstone; in 1997, many more than that number come in a single day. The free-hanging stairs to the roof would not survive such an impact if visitors were allowed to use them.

In Stephen T. Mather’s day, the problem was that not enough people visited the national parks. Today the problem is just the opposite. In the first 62 years of its existence, a total of 3 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, and now just 63 years later that number come every year. Whether or not the parks are “overvisited” is a concern that managers face today. Some people believe the parks are being “loved to death,” and studies have been initiated to define and quantify impacts and evaluate them. The input of visitors and all concerned with the future of our national parks is encouraged and welcomed.