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Record crowds swept through Tucson's Saguaro National Park in 2019
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Record crowds swept through Tucson's Saguaro National Park in 2019

All this cactus is starting to attract a crowd.

Saguaro National Park saw its busiest year ever in 2019, topping more than 1 million visitors for the first time in the park’s history.

The split 91,716-acre preserve bracketing Tucson saw 1,020,226 visitors last year, up from 957,405 in 2018, according to statistics just released by the National Park Service.

“It’s a pretty big number,” said Andy Fisher, Saguaro’s chief of interpretation, but the park seems to be weathering the onslaught pretty well so far.

The most obvious impact is springtime congestion on roads and in parking lots, especially along the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, at popular trailheads off Speedway and Broadway, and around the visitor center for the park’s east-side Rincon Mountain District.

“Our parking lot was not designed to handle the sorts of numbers we’re seeing out here,” Fisher said.

Once you get past such seasonal bottlenecks, though, “we have plenty of room,” she said.

Kevin Dahl is the senior program manager in Arizona for the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent, nonpartisan group that advocates on behalf of the nation’s parks. He’s also a regular at Saguaro National Park.

“I spend a lot of time at Saguaro, and not just because of my job,” Dahl said. “It’s my backyard national park.”

He agreed with Fisher. Though the park does get crowded in certain places at certain times of the year, it is far from being overrun.

“There are parts of Saguaro that are visited by nobody. There’s plenty of capacity for visitors at the park,” he said.

Filling up the Grand Canyon

Other treasured spots aren’t so lucky.

Some of America’s most iconic parks are being stressed to the breaking point by exploding visitation and shrinking federal funding.

According to Dahl’s organization, the past decade has seen a 16% increase in visitors and 14% reduction in staffing at the nation’s parks overall.

A massive maintenance backlog has only added to the problem, with nearly $12 billion in needed repairs at sites across the country.

The Trump administration’s initial budget proposal would slash $587 million from the park service budget, a roughly 17% cut that would result in the loss of more than 950 additional park employees.

However, Senate leaders and the Trump administration announced a deal Wednesday to devote more than $1 billion a year to clear the growing maintenance backlog at national parks.

Last year was the third busiest on record for the park service as a whole, with more than 327.5 million visitors at 379 sites nationwide.

Only 2016 and 2017 saw more traffic, with 331 million and 330.9 million visitors respectively.

Grand Canyon National Park also saw its third busiest year on record in 2019, with 5.97 million visitors.

“That’s more than the number of people who live in metro Phoenix, and they’re concentrated in a small geographic area,” Dahl said.

The result was packed parking lots and long traffic jams at the South Rim entrance gate over spring break and the height of the summer travel season.

And the park has been left to manage the crush with a list of deferred maintenance projects that totaled $313.9 million at the end of 2018 and a full-time staff that is 40% smaller than it was a decade ago.

Park hasn’t reached “carrying capacity” yet

Over the same period, Saguaro National Park saw its budget cut by almost 5% and its full-time staff cut by 20% , despite a more than 40% increase in visitation.

Thankfully, Fisher said, the staff gets a lot of help from volunteers and interns provided through the Friends of Saguaro National Park.

“It’s kind of nice to live in a community with so much support so we can make it work,” she said. “I can say that our staffing is not keeping pace, but I don’t think we’re in trouble at this point.”

Park service records for Saguaro date to 1920, when just 5,000 visitors were counted, though the site wasn’t designated as a national monument until 1933 or elevated to national park status until 1994.

The sharp rise in traffic at America’s spiniest park has mostly come since 2014, when about 673,600 people visited Saguaro.

The previous record for annual visitation was set in 2017, when 964,760 people came to the park.

Those figures only include so-called “recreation visits.”

A special algorithm is used to tease out commuters who drive through the Tucson Mountain District on their way between Tucson and Avra Valley.

Fisher said the west side of the park sees a higher volume of visitors, but the facilities there are newer and better equipped to handle it, so the congestion feels about the same in both the east and west units.

March was the busiest month last year with 186,275 visitors, followed by February with 149,371 and April with 117,802.

September was the quietest month, with 44,812 visitors.

Fisher said officials haven’t determined the park’s official “carrying capacity,” but she knows they’re not there yet.

Starting next year, park officials plan to conduct their first comprehensive visitor use study since 2004. As part of that effort, Fisher said, visitors can expect to see traffic counters on roads and trails and people with clipboards collecting survey data.

The study should reveal how many visitors are tourists from out of town and how many are locals who “use us for their morning fitness routines,” Fisher said.

It should also help pinpoint which areas see the most traffic and when — information the park can use to shape staffing and construction priorities in the future.

Until then, expect a crowd, especially at this time of year, Fisher said. “Come early, and bring your patience with you.”

Gallery: Saguaro National Park through the years

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean.

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