Editorial: Loving nature to death

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The current U.S. population is 326.5 million, tens of millions of whom live within a day’s drive of the White Mountain National Forest.

The economy is good, gas is cheap again, relatively speaking, and vehicles get better mileage. That means that there are more vehicles in the forest than its parking lots can hold and more people on the White Mountains hiking trails.

The phenomenon, which is great for restaurants, lodging establishments, local economies and state tax revenues, is not without its downsides.

We recall climbing Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine trail only to encounter a long line of people in bright, identically lettered T-shirts who were using the hike as a fundraiser.

The experience left us sputtering the rest of the way up and all the way down.

Visitors to the forest’s legendary Diana’s Baths, a series of picturesque pools and waterfalls on Lucy’s Brook in Bartlett, suffered a similar shock earlier in this tourist season. They returned to their cars, which were parked along the shoulder of West Side Road in Conway, to find $100 parking tickets. For years, people have parked along the road once the popular site’s 60-vehicle parking lot was full. The tickets were unfortunate, considering all New Hampshire does to attract tourists, but inevitable.

America’s most scenic and majestic places are being loved to death.

Local officials lobbied to have the state ban parking on the road. The cars posed a traffic hazard and something had to be done.

In her letter responding to their request, Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said she did not want to act without first forming a task force to study the issue.

“Decisions made could have tremendous impact on the quality of the visitor experience for thousands of tourists every year,” Sheehan said. She’s right. Visitors who failed to visit the attraction for want of parking were disappointed and those ticketed were angry. On the flip side, early birds who do get a parking space enjoy a much less crowded natural wonder.

There’s no easy or right answer to what is a national problem. A generation or so ago a vagabond could set out across America and, without much or even any planning, camp in one national park after another.

Prudent travelers now make reservations months in advance and sometimes – such as a rafting trip on the Colorado River – even years.

Some parks and wilderness areas now operate on quota systems. Some shuttle visitors to attractions from remote parking lots. Yosemite National Park is experimenting with taking reservations for parking places and, when parking lots are full, visitors are ushered through and out of the park. Some parks are issuing timed tickets like the ones given to art museum visitors during a special exhibit. So much for a wilderness experience.

It’s great that so many people want to get out from in front of their screens and see the real world up close, but when too many of them decide to go to the same place it sullies the experience, degrades the environment and creates headaches for all.

The park service and others in the tourist business are trying to steer visitors to less crowded venues to take pressure off the most popular destinations. But the world’s population is projected to grow by another billion people over the next 15 years, with the U.S. adding about 30 million of them.

That means that, sad as it is, the days of just hopping in a car and saying “Let’s go to ... ” are over.