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Visits to U.S. national parks set a record in 2016. The record was set for the third consecutive year. Landmarks such Zion, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain experienced historic levels of popularity. But these brought headaches, as well. They stem from overcrowded roads and trails and increasing visitor misbehavior.
At many parks, visitors waited an hour or more in cars to get through entrance gates. Then they spent the day trying to outsmart fellow visitors for parking spots and room on popular trails. They left behind enormous amounts of trash and sometimes, human waste.
Encountering a crowded, Disneyland-like situation when people were expecting peaceful serenity can lead to aggression and bad decisions, park officials said.
"The level of frustration, we've certainly seen an increase in that," said Kyle Patterson. She is Rocky Mountain National park spokeswoman. "Sometimes they take it out on each other. And sometimes they take it out on a park.
It created a good news-bad news story for park managers. They praise the increased interest. But they are struggling to preserve iconic mountains, slot canyons and wildlife habitat for future generations. The National Park Service budget has remained basically flat. That leaves parks to cope with the problems without higher staffing levels.
"We love having people come to the park," said John Marciano. He is the Zion National Park spokesman. "But our No. 1 goal, our mandate, is to preserve the park into perpetuity. And to ensure our visitors have a best of kind and safe experience."
Overall visitation to national parks is on track to surpass 325 million in 2016. That would break the all-time high of 307 million. It was set in 2015, federal figures show. The record-breaking three-year stretch came after parks visitation ebbed and flowed between 255-287 million for nearly three decades.
The National Park Service launched a major marketing campaign to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2016, including free passes for every fourth-grader and their families. That renewed attention coupled with reasonable gas prices and an improved economy likely fueled the increase, said National Parks Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson.
The agency's "Find Your park " campaign will continue this year. Officials expect to surpass 300 million visitors again even if there's no record, Olson said.
Absent from December totals, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona hit 5.9 million visits. Yellowstone stretches into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The park had 4.3 million visits.
The final year tally for Rocky Mountain in Colorado was 4.5 million. Zion in southern Utah had 4.3 million visitors. That was nearly double the 2010 total.
Cramming all those people into the narrow confines of Zion can be a problem. Most visitors want to see the same iconic slot canyons and trails. Many days that has led to hour-long waits to get in the park. It has also led to lots that fill up by 9 a.m. and crowded shuttles, Marciano said.
"Then, you hike like ducks in a row up the trail because there are so many going up the same trail," Marciano said. "That's not what we want."
One employee spent her entire summer hiking every day to the popular Angels Landing trail to clean and put more toilet paper in two portable toilets. They are designed for 40 visits daily but had 200, he said.
Both Zion and Yellowstone are reassessing how to create better crowd plans. Zion is considering a reservation system for park entries. It also might include a daily visitor limit.
Even though it is prohibited, more people are taking dogs on trails in the Rocky Mountain park. Visitors are also parking cars on native vegetation or fragile alpine tundra. Some are leaving human waste right near backcountry trails, Patterson said.
On certain days last summer, the park limited the number of cars allowed on two popular roads, she said. It was the first time that was necessary.
After Yellowstone hit 4 million visitors for the time in 2015, park spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said the park offered the "Yellowstone Pledge." The pledge urged visitors to follow guidelines. These included not stopping on the side of the road to look at bears and staying on boardwalks.
Yellowstone has also implored visitors to take "safe selfies." That includes staying far away from wild animals.
"They want that perfect picture. So they're driven to get closer and closer to the point they're risking their own safety," Warthin said.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What are the downsides to this record?
Write your answers in the comments section below