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'We’re expecting one of the busiest years on record’: National Park Service Spokesperson

Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, Spokesperson for the National Park Service, joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in attendance to U.S. national parks.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: National parks, they are seeing a surge in visitors. Restrictions are getting lifted. People are anxious to get out and about and just explore a little bit. So we want to talk about what we're seeing play out across the country with Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles. She's the assistant director of communications for the National Park Service. And Jenny, it's great to have you.

Put this in perspective for us because we've seen the videos and the pictures of the long lines. You've heard about some of these national parks closing by 9:00 or 10:00 AM, the morning of, so they're running out of space very, very quickly. But how big of a jump have you seen in the number of visitors?

JENNY ANZELMO-SARLES: We don't have official numbers for 2021 yet, but what I can say is that we're expecting one of the busiest years on record. Looking back at 2019, we'll skip 2020 for some obvious reasons, but in 2019, 327 million people visited America's over 400 national parks. But most of those people visited about 10 to 15 of the most popular national parks. So there are lots of opportunities across the country to get out and enjoy your parks, have a quiet moment, get away from the crowds.

But you're absolutely right. We are seeing huge numbers, and so we want people to plan ahead, plan like us, plan like a park ranger. Come early, come late. Make sure you have a reservation before you hop in the car so that your only surprises are those happy ones.

- Teddy Roosevelt is smiling upon us. But let me ask you, when you say reservations, are all parks now operating on a reservation status? I'm thinking of Baxter State Park in Maine. I think that's one where you have to make a reservation before you can enter. Is that the protocol now across the board?

JENNY ANZELMO-SARLES: There are a few national parks in the country that require advanced reservations, particularly this summer, as we have fewer staff with a COVID mitigation measure and as communities in and around parks continue to rebound from the pandemic. So places like Zion National Park, you need to plan to take a shuttle. Reservations are required if you're going to visit Glacier and some other national parks.

So make sure to check out nps.gov for where you need a reservation. But the vast majority of parks, over 400 national parks, don't require advanced reservations, but where people might run into trouble is if they don't plan for a place to stay at night. We are seeing that campground reservations are up 73% from 2019, and most hotels in and around the most popular national parks are either fully booked or nearly fully booked all the way through Labor Day.

SEANA SMITH: Jenny, is this like anything that you've seen before in prior years?

JENNY ANZELMO-SARLES: We are definitely, at least anecdotally, seeing more people at many of the most popular national parks. And listen, it's wonderful that so many Americans are out and traveling and enjoying these places that belong to all of us as Americans. As more people are vaccinated and we continue to emerge from the pandemic, we want to welcome you. You might just need to have a little bit of patience, plan for a little bit more time, but we have seen high numbers, but we are reaching record numbers.

Yellowstone National Park had the busiest Memorial Day on record, up 50% from, I believe, 2019. Grand Teton has seen a significant increase in May and April visitation over prior years. So we're seeing this trend across the country-- Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Acadia National Park. So it's not just the big parks out West. Everywhere I've seen an increase for those popular parks.

But the good news is there are lots of places to go. So if you can't go to Yellowstone, you couldn't snag that hotel reservation, you might check out Lassen Volcanic in California. There's a great alternative to many of the most famous parks.

- I'm glad you brought up Acadia because my relatives in Portland, Maine are probably laughing that I said Baxter State Park. But let me ask you this, we had a guest on earlier talking about the airlines, and the bad behavior we're seeing from people who are just pandemic worn out, are you seeing that kind of behavior at the parks in some cases, or are people behaving? Because there are going to be big crowds at the parks.

JENNY ANZELMO-SARLES: Yeah, we ask everybody to take care of each other. Take care of those other visitors. We want to leave places like we found them so our family and friends that come behind us can have that same experience. And part of that certainly is being respectful of the staff. We're lucky that we are having very few challenges. That's not to say we haven't had some conflicts in parks, but following CDC recommendations that people are fully vaccinated, you no longer are required to wear a mask when visiting national park. We're just asking that those people who aren't yet fully vaccinated still wear a mask in crowded outdoor spaces and when you're inside.

So we're not having too many challenges. I think most people are so happy to be out and enjoying their parks and looking forward to experiencing and being out of being around people again. So we've been pretty lucky.

SEANA SMITH: Jenny, the funding for the national parks in the Biden administration, they proposed an increase in the budget for next year that included some funding for national parks, but what are you seeing just in terms of what you need this year with this massive jump in the number of visitors?

JENNY ANZELMO-SARLES: It's always an ongoing challenge. Every dollar that is invested in national parks-- excuse me. Every dollar that Congress appropriates for national parks returns ten to be US economy, which is an incredible, incredible investment. In 2019, over 327 million visitors contributed $41.7 billion to the US economy and supported over 340,000 jobs in communities within 50 miles of national parks, which is incredible.

So we are a bunch of rangers who are going to do our best and continue to serve. We do face some challenges, certainly. The historic Great American Outdoors Act that was passed in 2020 is the largest investment in park service infrastructure in our history. That is something that's going to help us make visits better for people, things that you might not think of like water systems and sewer treatment facilities that are definitely critical for a pleasant visit when you join us in the park.

SEANA SMITH: Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, assistant director of communications for the National Park Service, thanks so much. I think we're all now craving to book a trip somewhere fun very soon.