Lotteries and timed entries are becoming increasingly common to access public lands and experiences. But are public lands, and the public themselves, winning?
BY MARK WILCOX
My girls scurry ahead of me, grabbing chains anchored into sandstone and striding confidently along cliff edges with 1,000-foot falls the consequence of any major misstep. Nya, 13, was born fearless. Ari, 10, is following her lead. Kael, 14, is the reason they provide chains. His fearful grip could be leaving grooves in the iron as much as the iron leaves channels in the red rock.
My kids are ascending the nearly 1,500-foot red-rock buttress of Angels Landing in Zion National Park for the first time. We’ve come on December 1, 2021, just after the Thanksgiving crowds dissipate. Mostly we’ve come now so we can do it at all.
A permitting lottery will soon go into effect that may make today the last time we hike Angels Landing as a family.
Should access be left unrestricted, supporting a suboptimal, possibly dangerous experience for more people? Or should access be tied to lotteries and permitting?
A divisive issue
For my kids, Angels Landing became a highlight I’m confident will encourage them to seek lifelong outdoor experiences. Kael, who was so uptight he started cramping early on, loosened up and called it one of his all-time favorite hikes. And he’s been on some doozies.
According to a spokesman for Zion National Park, about 300,000 people climbed Angels Landing in 2019—the most recent data available. That’s about 1 in 15 park visitors. That was before the COVID outdoors boom. Between 2019 and 2021, Zion visitation ballooned 12.3 percent to more than 5 million. If demand for Angels Landing increased as much as park visitation—a reasonable assumption given its prominence and popularity—that means about 337,000 people climbed the daunting fortress of sandstone in 2021, an average of 920 people per day on a knife-edge cliff with one set of chains for safety.
Falls happen. Since 2000, 14 people have died on Angels Landing by causes not well understood, according to a park spokesman. By the law of averages, it’s not many people. Roughly 4.7 million people have stood atop Angels Landing since 2000. With those numbers, you’re about 37 times less likely to die climbing Angels Landing than driving to get there. Which all begs the question: Should access be left unrestricted, supporting a suboptimal, possibly dangerous experience for more people? Or should access be tied to lotteries and permitting? It’s a tough question of quantity or quality and requires difficult solutions.
More parks are opening timed-entry systems and lottery permitting for key attractions since the first lottery went into effect in 2009 for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Since then, it’s slowly become a trend as visitation soars. Among America’s national parks, at least Acadia, Arches, Haleakalā, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yosemite and Zion have all flipped the switch on timed-entry passes or additional permitting for key attractions or hikes. On a more local and less restrictive basis, Yellowstone has sought to better accommodate the crowds.
Linda Veress, public information specialist at Yellowstone, said that the park now allows online pre-purchases of entry passes as well as fishing and backcountry permits to avoid entrance-booth and visitor-center crowding. And Yellowstone campgrounds can also now be reserved up to six months in advance on the all-things-outdoors federal website recreation.gov. According to Veress, these measures have already helped reduce congestion in key areas while increasing certainty for park visitors.
Taking online automation onto the street, the park also launched an automated shuttle pilot program to ferry people around the congested area of Canyon Village. “As visitation continues increasing in Yellowstone, we are looking at a range of visitor management actions that focus on protecting resources, improving the visitor experience, and reducing congestion, noise and pollution,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a press release on January 20 of this year. “Shuttles will unquestionably play a key role in helping achieve these goals in many of the busiest areas of the park.”
These friendly measures seem designed to accommodate the crowds rather than inhibit them. Veress said these and other measures for the future will help deliver the park’s strategic priority of a “world-class visitor experience.”
But at some parks, the measures seem designed to cut the crowds, not accommodate them. There are currently 23 permit lotteries, five ticket lotteries and 13 timed entries at parks noted on recreation.gov. Some say the regulations are temporary to deal with crowding. Others don’t sound so sure.
Janelle Smith is a spokesperson for recreation.gov, the portal that also manages the new Angels Landing permitting experience. Though Zion National Park instituted the change, Smith backs it after having her own crowded-trail experience at Angels Landing. She attempted Angels Landing over Thanksgiving weekend—the same timeframe my family avoided because of crowds. And while the experience for my children was life changing in a good way, Smith said hers pushed her away.
“It was so crowded and dangerous we couldn’t complete it,” she said. At one point, a frightened woman lost her balance and fell into Smith. If conditions had been much different, death could have followed for her, for the woman who stumbled and for others nearby on the trail. Shaken, Smith turned around disappointed, vowing to never go back. Now others are being turned away for different reasons, for better or worse.
“Honestly, we had no idea how hard the lottery was until we got there and saw how many people were being turned away and were not able to get spots.”
Some say that adding a lottery system to an outdoor activity is a bet everyone loses. “I don’t see how the cost is not gambling in the state of Utah,” said Ashley Romero, an outdoorswoman who responded to my public call for comment on a southern Utah hiking Facebook page. “It’s absurd and it absolutely discriminates [against] low-income families.”
One man called it “another scammy lottery.” Others countered about a need for more funding, which kicked off a firestorm of heated commentary on my Facebook queries about whether people like the new system. Most seem to grudgingly accept the need for additional permitting in crowded places. But anti-lottery people think they should get a service or experience if they’re paying. Others think the National Park Service needs all the funding it can get. Still others think they should simply raise the fees for the permits themselves and make them reservation-only.
“I have entered the day-before lottery [for Angels Landing] three times and was not selected,” said Emma Plunkett on Facebook. “I was really hoping to go while I was camping in Zion!”
The new permitting at Angels Landing lets limitless people pay for the chance to get a permit, but some report having Plunkett’s luck with the draw. The system piggybacks on a similar method the park instituted for reserving permits for limited-access canyoneering routes years ago. “You’re buying an opportunity to be told yes or no,” said Brandon Price, an entrepreneur from nearby St. George, Utah, who has for years been using the park’s lottery system for canyoneering permits.
For $6 under the new system, users get the chance to throw their name in the ring with whomever else wants to hike Angels Landing at the same time and on the same day. In the event your name is drawn, it’s another $3 per person for groups of up to six people. Still worth it but enough to make you think twice, especially with the randomness and planning wrench of a paid lottery standing in the way.
Several people I heard from didn’t win the lottery despite putting in for multiple days. Some had to cancel their trips to the Zion area; others left unfulfilled. Some just wanted to know what they’re paying for.
Part of the money, according to Zion and recreation.gov spokespeople, goes to manage the system itself. Consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton nabbed a 10-year, $182 million federal contract to modernize and manage recreation.gov, the interagency portal that lets users do everything from reserving a BLM campsite to entering a lottery for a prime national parks experience.
But some question the costs. To run all of Zion, NPS only spent $8.5 million in 2021. That’s well under half of the $18.2 million one private contractor got to run some reservation systems across multiple agencies in the same year. It’s unclear how much money is returned to the parks and agencies. Or even if the money is earmarked for the park or agency from which it originates.
Smith, the spokesperson for recreation.gov, said parks’ demands and desires are driving the recently renovated recreation.gov, with the contractor simply building out parks’ wish lists. She added that the costs are justifiable, comparing it to online ticketing services for concerts and events that tack on fees for the service. But in those portals, the difference is you always get the ticket when you pay the fee. It’s not the case with the lottery system.
“That’s a customer without having to provide a service,” said Price, the St. George entrepreneur. “They don’t even have to give you a hamburger.”
Still, according to Smith, the fees support platforms that require upkeep and oversight. They also offer a valuable service to the agencies requesting aid with visitor management. Along with the infrastructure and technology to run the lotteries, the contractor also subcontracts a call center staffed seven days a week, 14 hours a day. “That alleviates a lot of pressure on the agencies,” Smith said. Even so, some have complained about long waits and unfriendly routing at the call center.
A portion of the money from the lottery goes back into the park in the form of hiring new rangers, providing emergency services and orientation services, and enforcing the program itself, said Zion spokesman Jonathan Shafer. People who hiked Angels Landing since the permits landed have already noted permit checkers on the route at multiple points.
Despite the drawbacks of limiting access to a public commodity, many people are reporting a positive experience with the lottery, and more importantly, the hike itself. “I absolutely loved the experience,” reported Darin Robillard, an outdoorsman who responded to my Facebook query. He spent 20 minutes alone on top of Angels Landing. “It was eerie but beautiful to hear nothing but the wind while climbing the chains.”
From early adopters of the system who actually got from the experience what they paid, it’s a common refrain. “Compared to pictures people have shared, it was empty,” said Southern Utah Hikes Facebook page member Danielle Paquette, who planned an entire trip around her lottery time. “Honestly, we had no idea how hard the lottery was until we got there and saw how many people were being turned away and were not able to get spots.”
Some worry that it will impact the overall visitor experience. Brent Doty is an RV park owner in the area who said COVID has already forced some would-be visitors to reschedule their Angels Landing ascent for two years. “It’s so disappointing for folks,” Doty said. “Two years later and finding they are not able to accomplish a multiyear dream. It’s a shame.”
Zion calls the mass permitting and lottery at Angels Landing a pilot program. The park designed the system with four seasonal lotteries and the day-before lottery to accommodate both planners and last-minute travelers. “The number of permits we’re issuing and the ways we allocate them are still changing,” said Zion spokesman Shafer. “As we observe conditions on the trail and get more perspective on permit demand, we may shift when and how many permits we issue per day.”
But is it a gamble that will pay off in terms of conservation and overall visitor experience? Not everyone is convinced, but Shafer expressed confidence the program would address visitors’ concerns while conserving the park and providing access long into the future.
Mark Wilcox is a veteran storyteller from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Most days, he helps business owners tell their stories better online through his growing digital marketing agency Skymark Creative.