Unfaithful to Old Faithful

Why are Americans staying away from our national parks

| May / June 2004

If El Capitan were there and no one came to see it, would the awesome granite monolith in California's Yosemite Valley still matter? The question seems pretty much moot, given that each year 3 million people travel to a spot that inspired John Muir and Ansel Adams and now is part of a famous national park. In recent decades, conventional media wisdom has held that many national parks were, in fact, being loved to death, and tales of traffic jams in Yellowstone struck fear into the hearts of road-tripping vacationers.

But in the past few years, the story has changed: Fewer people are visiting our national parks, especially the system's Western 'crown jewels,' despite a rising U.S. population. The National Park Service projects that the decline will continue in 2004. In 2001, the number of people camping at national parks dropped to its lowest point in 25 years, suggesting that Americans may be losing interest in rustic wilderness experiences. So, is the outdoors becoming pass??

Explanations for the declining park numbers include the struggling economy, a trend toward shorter vacations closer to home, and lingering effects from 9/11. But longer-term shifts in U.S. society may also be playing pivotal roles, says Jim Gramann, visiting chief social scientist for the National Park Service and a professor of recreation, parks, and tourism at Texas A&M University. He says the nation's growing ethnic diversity and generational changes are probably cutting into park attendance.

White Americans visit the national parks at the greatest rate, Gramann points out, while visitor rates are lower among people of color, who now account for much of U.S. population growth. 'You have to ask whether the park experience is as relevant to the current population in the United States as it might have been, say, a generation ago,' he says.

'Another concern we have is that younger people don't seek out the type of primitive, pristine experiences available in many national parks,' Gramann says. 'Because of technological transformations in U.S. society, with the digital revolution and the Internet, young people may relate to the world around them in a different manner.'

Baby boomers are also changing their ways, explains Geoff Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University. Godbey points out that participation in outdoor recreation activities like tent camping and backpacking is either flat or declining.

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