Everglades National Park

Mount Rainier National Park.

Will the National Parks Bring Their Backcountry Permit System Into the Digital Era?

By Michael Lanza

Last month, a storm caused a power outage at Mount Rainier National Park during a two-week period when rangers received about 2,000 requests from backpackers and climbers for backcountry permit reservations for 2016. (One of those requests, coincidentally, was mine.) The outage sparked a “critical failure” of the park’s reservation system, forcing management to abandon it and announce they would issue permits only first-come, first-served for all of 2016—not convenient for anyone traveling a distance to explore Rainier’s backcountry or thru-hike the Wonderland Trail.

Rainier’s crisis throws a spotlight on a larger dilemma facing the National Park Service: In an age when we can swipe and click to purchase almost any product or service, many national parks have plodded into the Digital Era with an archaically 20th-century system for reserving and issuing permits to camp in the backcountry—a system involving snail mail and fax machines. (If you’re not old enough to remember the 1980s and 1990s, Google “fax” on your smartphone.) At some parks, you must actually still show up in person, stand in line, and hope for the best.

Finally, though, it appears the national parks are making a bold leap into the 21st century, a change that should make exploring the backcountry of most parks—or at least getting permission to do so—much easier.

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Young kids backpacking through Spray Park in Mount Rainier National Park.

Photo Gallery: 11 National Parks, One Year

By Michael Lanza

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon, Glacier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier (lead photo, above) national parks. Hiking to Yosemite’s waterfalls. Paddling the Everglades and sea kayaking Glacier Bay. Rock climbing in Joshua Tree, and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone. In one magical year, we took 11 national park adventures with our kids, sharing experiences that expanded their understanding of their world, times filled with joy and wonder.

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Interview: NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis dishes on climate, politics, and watering giant sequoias

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis calls climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of the national park system that we’ve ever faced.”

In an exclusive interview with The Big Outside for my book on parks and climate change, he talks about how the National Park Service is responding to the climate threat, and the possibility of employing drastic measures like irrigating giant sequoia trees.

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