Brooks Falls is, without question, the most famous place in Katmai National Park and one of the most famous wildlife-watching destinations in North America. Even if you can’t place it on a map, you’ve likely seen it in a wildlife film, in a photograph, or on TV. Search “bear catching salmon,” for example, and nearly all of the first 50 photos are of a bear standing on the lip of Brooks Falls.
On a sunny, warm morning in mid July 2021, I arrive at the boardwalk leading to the falls after hiking the short trail through the surrounding spruce forest. It’s a promising time to visit. The early summer sockeye salmon migration is in full swing and hungry bears are eager to catch them. But about halfway along the boardwalk, I realize the chances of reaching the falls in a timely manner are slim. At a covered platform nicknamed the Treehouse, where the boardwalk forks and leads to different viewpoints of the river, there’s a wall of people.
Under the Treehouse roof, about 25 people surround a frazzled park ranger who clutches a metal clipboard. The clipboard and the scribble of names he places on it are the ranger’s only lifeline to a semblance of order—it’s the waitlist for the groups wanting to gain access to the platform overlooking the falls. Like a restaurant maître d’, the ranger greets new arrivals, take their names, and asks others to wait their turn when people fill the Falls platform to its 40-person capacity. He also imposes a one-hour time limit for people at the Falls so that those who are waiting have a chance to go there.
Few people normally hang out at the Treehouse voluntarily, since if offers no lines of sight to the river and its bears. Therefore, the crowd at the Treehouse this morning indicates that the wait time to access the falls is substantial. Having staffed the platforms as a ranger in the past, I don’t wish to add to this ranger’s workload or anyone’s wait time this morning. Instead, I look for space at the adjacent Riffles Platform where rangers don’t manage a specific capacity.
I don’t find much space there either. About 20 people occupy it already. Even more fill in gaps within a few minutes of my arrival as the queue for the Falls platform grows larger. With 40 people at the falls, 25 in the treehouse, 30 or more at the nearby Riffles platform, and surely more to come, I leave for a a less crowded space.
The lower fourth of Brooks River meanders through seasonally flooded marshes and gravel bars before spilling into the glacially-fed and turquoise-colored Naknek Lake, the largest lake wholly contained within any U.S. national park. The lower river offers space and safety for mother bears and their cubs who choose to avoid the risks posed by the larger males fishing at the falls. Young, recently weaned bears also use the area as a place to socialize and graze on tender grass with less risk of encountering a larger, more dominant competitor. It’s also the most ecologically diverse place along the river so even if there are no bears in sight, there’s usually something to catch your eye.
About 20 minutes after leaving the falls boardwalk I arrive at the lower river and station myself on a platform adjacent to the long footbridge that leads to Brooks Lodge and the park visitor center. The perch allows me to see most of the river mouth as well as the meandering reverse S-curve upstream. Few bears use the lower river as I sit, although the vicinity remains filled with activity. A near continuous high-decibel, high-pitched whine fills the air as float planes arrive and taxi to the lakeshore. They disgorge their passengers out of my line of sight, but each plane must’ve been filled to capacity. Over the next hour, I count more than 200 people crossing the bridge toward the falls. Almost none walk in the opposite direction. I sympathize mentally with the Treehouse ranger who is likely clutching his clipboard even more tightly.
Later in the day, another ranger reports to me that the wait to reach the Falls platform exceeded two hours at its peak. In total more than 350 people arrived at Brooks Camp this day, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s on top of the pilots and guides who brought people here, the 30 people who stayed in the campground, the 50-60 people who stayed in the lodge, the 30 concession employees, and the 20 park staff. Even with my conservative math, about 500 people occupied Brooks Camp, all attempting to share a 1.5 mile-long river corridor with two to three dozen brown bears.
By the end of summer 2021 more than 15,000 people visited Brooks Camp—most of whom arrived in July and all of whom used infrastructure largely designed in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate about half to two-thirds as much at most. It’s double the visitation of 2007, the first year I worked as a ranger at Brooks Camp.
The increasing popularity of Brooks Camp is no surprise. It’s a continuation of a pre-COVID pandemic trend that began around 2010. The surge in visitation is not unique to Katmai either. Many national parks are no longer just crowded; they are overwhelmed. About 5 million people visited Yellowstone in 2021 — 800,000 more than in 2019. More than 14 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021. Sixteen million visited Blue Ridge Parkway.
The popularity of national parks is a welcome sign that these spaces are important and meaningful to broad swaths of the public. It wasn’t that long ago, that a National Park Service director wondered aloud whether parks were losing their relevancy. However, at the same time that our national parks experience record high visitation many more people encounter significant barriers that inhibit them from experiencing these places. I might’ve been sharing Brooks River with 500 people that day last July, but millions more are denied the opportunity. In an era of great crowding in our national parks, I wonder, do we have the determination to make parks accessible to everyone?
The first national parks in the United States were protected for their scenic splendor, unique features, and wildlife. Nothing compares to Yellowstone’s geyser basins, Yosemite’s towering granitic cliffs, or Sequoia’s majestic trees. However, broad public support for these areas in the late 1800s was lacking. Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite and Mount Rainier—the first four national parks created by Congress—were remote and difficult to access. Upon their establishment, they lacked the facilities and basic infrastructure necessary to accommodate large numbers of people. Even so, the park boosters, advocates, and visitors who had experienced these landscapes understood they were special places.
To build a constituency for parks and facilitate a national park experience for more people, the earliest park managers built roads, trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers. They hired rangers. They allowed concessioners to build and operate hotels, lodges, restaurants, and trinket shops. After Congress established the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, the fledging agency doubled down on infrastructure development. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration constructed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of trails and roads within park boundaries. Soon after, a post-WWII travel boom highlighted a need to modernize parks and accommodate a tsunami of people (visitation to all national parks combined increased from about 3.5 million to almost 30 million between 1931 and 1948). The effort was sanctioned by Congress in 1956 through the Mission 66 program, a 10-year-long and billion-dollar plan to expand and modernize facilities and infrastructure in national parks.
Making parks physically accessible to greater numbers of travelers established the experiential paradigm that national parks function within today. Namely, a physical visit to a park inspires people and leads them to become park stewards and supporters.
The effort, it can be convincingly argued, worked. More people visited. More people had great experiences. More people cared for parks. It helped fuel a burgeoning environmental awareness and protection movement. The paradigm, it seemed, had created more stewards than ever before. But not everyone was pleased with the trajectory of tourism in national parks.
In Desert Solitaire, one of Ed Abbey’s most well known essays is “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and National Parks.” Much of the book and “Polemic,” especially, is based on Abbey’s experience working as a ranger at then Arches National Monument in the 1950s, a time before pavement bisected the little visited park in southeast Utah.
Abbey seemed to enjoy his job. He muses something that probably every ranger, including me, has thought at one time or another: “On the rare occasions when I peer into the future more than a few days I can foresee myself returning here for season after season, year after year, indefinitely. What better sinecure could a man with small needs, infinite desires, and philosophic pretensions ask for?”
But, as Abbey saw it, not all was rosy at Arches. He writes, “For there is a cloud on my horizon. A small dark cloud no bigger than my hand. Its name is Progress.” Under the direction of the National Park Service, Arches soon transitioned from an off-the-beaten-path retreat to a major tourist destination.
Abbey experienced Arches as the NPS implemented its Mission 66 plan. He worried and warned that national parks were threatened by “industrial tourism” whose “chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks.”
Abbey’s “Polemic,” true to the title word’s meaning, is a scathing criticism of development in national parks and the NPS’s efforts to expand it. “Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year.” *
*Abbey might have exaggerated the numbers here, although visitation did increase substantially between the time Abbey last worked at Arches in 1957 when, according to National Park Service statistics, annual visitation was 25,400 to 135,000 visitors in 1968 when Desert Solitaire was published. In 2021, visitation exceeded 1.7 million.*
Abbey outlined several ways to alleviate crowding and further development such as an end to road building in parks, putting more rangers into the field, and banning cars from parks. “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk,” he writes. “The automotive combine has almost succeeded in strangling our cities; we need not let it also destroy our national parks.”
If Abbey was angry then, he might feel a rage today. More than 297 million people visited national parks in 2021 during a pandemic. More than 327 million people visited national park areas in 2019. Record high visitation stresses the already expansive and often underfunded infrastructure of parks. Parking lots are consistently full; excess cars line the road or their drivers shove their vehicles onto narrow shoulders. Some areas, such as Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain that you need a permit to get in the park parking lot. Herds of us overwhelm trails and overlooks too. Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome requires a permit awarded through lottery as does Zion’s Angels Landing. You now need a “timed entry permit” to enter Rocky Mountain National Park and drive Glacier National Park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Remote hiking areas, where Abbey’s preferred visitors go, are often filled too. When I worked as a backcountry ranger at North Cascades in summer 2017, most every backcountry campsite filled during summer weekends. The overflow spilled into the surrounding national forests, public lands with significantly fewer rangers than national parks.
Clearly, the industry of tourism has grown substantially during the last several decades. Although the pros and cons of this reality is not something I wish to tackle in this essay, our national parks are at a tipping point beyond which I worry the experience of visiting them as well as its wildlife, plants, and scenery will suffer. While I support rethinking how we use cars in national parks and we certainly should not be building new roads, denigrating those who experience parks by car is not the answer. I now see Abbey’s objections to visiting parks by car as ableist.
As an aside, I should note how far my thinking has evolved on this issue. Staring my career twenty years ago, I agreed with Abbey’s no-cars-in-parks stance. Cars are a menace, I thought. (And to be honest, that remains true in many ways. Automobiles kill tens of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of vertebrate animals in the U.S. each year. Transportation also accounts for about 30% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Driving less would do our world a lot of good.)
Fresh out of college and equipped with good health, I privately sneered at those who drove through parks without riding a bicycle or spending time on the trail. Like Abbey, I wondered, are you really having valid national park experience if you don’t risk hypothermia or sunburn? Yet, most of the time I drove into parks, parked my car and then rode my bike or hiked. I was, hypocritically, dependent on the car and, more importantly, I didn’t consider that the experience of those visiting parks primarily by car as equally valid an experience as my own. Of equal or perhaps even more concern was my rejection of the needs of people who couldn’t visit. “Oh, you can’t come,” I thought, “That sucks but what am I supposed to do about it?” Nature deficit disorder is real, but let’s not pretend that experiencing a national park by car is a cause. There are other much more systemic issues at heart.
When we’ve traditionally explored how to address crowding in national parks, most of the ideas, especially those that have emerged out of the NPS bureaucracy, center around encouraging people to visit less crowded parks, to use shuttles where available like at Zion and Acadia, to visit during less crowded times and seasons, and to encourage people to do more planning or plan like like ranger. Comparatively little thought has been given toward efforts designed to connect parks with people who experience barriers that hinder them from visiting.
Perhaps your employer doesn’t provide time off. Perhaps you cannot afford the time and money to visit parks. Perhaps you are among the two-thirds of Americans who experience chronic disease, some of which are serious enough to hinder travel and outdoor activities. Perhaps the COVID-pandemic exacerbates this, especially if you are among the immunocompromised that society seems willing to leave behind. Perhaps you have a decent salary and are relatively healthy from a physical standpoint, yet experience stress or depression that negatively impact your ability to travel. After all, we seem to be more stressed than ever. Perhaps you’re not White and the legacies of segregation in parks, discrimination in the conservation movement, and lynchings in rural areas create feelings of unwelcome and fear in outdoor spaces. Perhaps micro-aggressions from the largely White visitation and ranger staff make you feel like an outsider. Perhaps you’re Indigenous and parks are places of historical trauma where the U.S. government warred with and forcibly removed your ancestors to advance Euro-American settlement.
With these barriers in place, focusing primarily on congestion in parks is like rearranging chairs in a crowded room, while ignoring everyone that can’t even get in the building.
No panacea exists to solve accessibility issues in our parks. And, thankfully, a growing number of organizations are working toward solutions such as Brown People Camping, Disabled Hikers, Latino Outdoors, National Ability Center, Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Wilderness Inquiry to name a few. There’s one way, however, that the NPS can break the prevailing paradigm almost immediately to provide people from all backgrounds with meaningful national park experiences, and with little more than an internet connection, which brings me back to Katmai.
While at Brooks River, I don’t share the river with only the few hundred people on the ground with me. I share every moment with many thousands of people watching from around the world. In 2012, Katmai National Park partnered with explore.org to host streaming webcams at Brooks River. Several webcams (collectively and affectionately known as the bearcams) stream live footage of Brooks River each summer and fall, allowing anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to watch bears fishing for salmon.
Each year, the bearcams receive millions of views. During 2021, for example, the bearcams saw 16.5 million page views on explore.org. People also watched from 110 countries and all 50 states. The programs that rangers and I host on the bearcams reached hundreds of thousands of people collectively. These numbers are several orders of magnitude larger than even the record setting visitation experienced at Brooks River during the same year.
Although the bearcam experience lacks the immersiveness of an on-site visit, its depth far surpasses anything you’d typically get in person. A webcam experience isn’t limited by flight schedules, vacation days, outdoor skills, fitness, or wellness. It lasts as long as you want. It is accessible whenever you want. Through the bearcams, we watch bears not for a hurried few hours. We watch across weeks, seasons, and years. We see bears return to the river every year of their lives. We watch mother bears rear multiple litters of cubs, and those cubs, in turn, mature through sub-adulthood and adulthood. We discern the breadth of each bear’s individuality as it decides how to make a living. We witness the ebb and flow of the largest salmon runs left on the planet, how the fish underpin Katmai’s ecosystem, and how their year-to-year variability influences the behavior of bears and other wildlife. There’s no wildlife-watching experience quite like it.
If you haven’t experienced a national park through a webcam, then it might be difficult to envision that watching a park through a webcam can be meaningful. But, friends, it is true. A study comparing and contrasting on-site (i.e. in-person) and online (webcam) visitors to Brooks River found that webcam viewers emotionally connected with bears at higher levels than on-site visitors. The same study found that webcam viewers also support protections for bears at higher levels than people who visit in-person. In fact, support for bears and national parks among webcam viewers equalled or exceeded those reported by on-site visitors on almost all metrics evaluated in the study. Subsequent research has found that the bearcams provide mental health benefits and that people greatly value the individual animals that they see through webcams. To expand these lines of research, I’m collaborating with Dr. Lynne Lewis from Bates College, Dr. Leslie Richardson from the NPS and Dr. Jeffrey Skibins from East Carolina University to conduct and analyze more on-site and online surveys of Katmai’s visitors. Our analyses of online surveys from 2019 and 2020, for example, have confirmed previous results and have even underscored the importance of individual, easily recognized bears in people’s experience.
As the aforementioned crowding issues demonstrate, providing space for everyone who wants to visit parks in-person isn’t feasible or sustainable for Katmai or any other national park. It is feasible, however, to provide meaningful, memorable wildlife and nature-based experiences through the democratizing and stewardship-raising force of webcams. (And if you don’t believe me after all this, please go to the bearcams and ask for yourself in the comments.) It’s long past time for more national parks to utilize webcams to bridge barriers that hinder people from finding meaning and value in national parks and other wild spaces.
I’ll be the first to admit that the bearcam experience is different than visiting Katmai in-person, and my advocacy for the use of webcams does not mean I believe webcams can or should replace the in-person park experience. Nothing that a computer screen provides can truly replicate the wellspring of awe that I feel while standing at Brooks Falls and seeing a dozen bears compete for fishing spots. But, for almost everyone except very fortunate individuals like me, the in-person bear watching experience is ephemeral. Only a tiny fraction of Brooks Camp’s visitors return more than once, according to the two most recent in-depth visitor surveys (2006 and 2014). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many. For others, it’s not feasible at all.
We can’t build our way out of crowding and access issues like we did after the post-WWII tourism boom or try to shove people into parks during increasingly crowded “non-peak hours” or “shoulder” seasons, not if we want to ensure a high-quality experience, the integrity of park ecosystems, or address the systemic barriers that prevent many people from visiting parks. In contrast, webcams in national parks can provide a form of nature-based equity. They create life-long and devoted stewards among those who may never visit in-person. They help our nature-starved societies find connections with the non-human realm. They heal people.
National parks rank among the nation’s most revered landscapes, and their place within American culture is no accident. In the 150 years since Yellowstone National Park’s establishment, the national park idea has evolved. Yellowstone and other parks are much more than places “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” We value parks for the solace they give us, the fun we experience in them, the wonder and awe they inspire, the opportunity to consider our shared history, and, of course, for the plants, animals, and natural processes that parks harbor. I cherish my time in parks. Everyone deserves access to similar opportunities.
In the United States at least, many of us are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy in a COVID-positive world. Our governments and public discourse are a hot mess of arguments about how to best achieve this. In the context of national parks, other public lands, and wild areas, however, “normal” does not equate universal access. It never has. This upcoming spring and summer, national parks will once again be overwhelmed with people. Rangers will do their best to cope, but without more rangers and the regulatory and policy tools to address congestion, the NPS will go back to its default mode: put out active fires, ignore the tinder, and hope the flames don’t spread.
Katmai National Park existed within the standard visitation paradigm for decades. For those who visit to watch bears in-person, it is an amazing and profound experience. When I worked there as an interpretive ranger, when I’ve visited during my free time, and when I’ve returned as a fellow with explore.org, those moments when I watched bears expressing their survival instincts are experiences more meaningful and memorable than almost any thing else I’ve done in my life thus far.
I last worked as a ranger in Katmai in 2016 though. Without webcams Brooks River would be a fading memory by now, no matter how many photos I took or journal pages I wrote. With the bearcams I, along with anyone else with an internet connection, can return at any time to find inspiration in the beauty of our world as well as the tenacity and intelligence of wild animals. Watching bears, whether in-person on online, creates life-long memories and inspires stewardship. Are national parks truly spaces for everyone? Not yet, but if more parks use webcams as a tool to reach people there’s no reason they can’t be.