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.
'One reason is the aging of the population. Age does matter with every single outdoor recreation activity except walking for pleasure,' Godbey says. 'The population is also dramatically more obese, and obese people tend not to hike and get into canoes because it's hard to do.'
Although park visitation numbers are down, it's a slight decline, indicating a plateau rather than a sharp drop, says Gary Machlis, a visiting senior scientist for the National Park Service and a University of Idaho professor of forest resources and sociology. He notes that numbers have fallen before -- during both world wars, and during the 1970s oil embargo -- and later bounced back.
'It's curious to me that growth is always seen as good,' says Machlis, pointing out that while access is vital, the quality of the back-to-nature experience is also worth considering.
But the parks may well face much bigger perils than a slump in visitor numbers. Last August, 123 former Park Service employees wrote to President Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, criticizing the administration's policies on park maintenance, air pollution enforcement, and road development. And when the National Parks Conservation Association released its annual list of the 10 most endangered parks in January, the same problems topped their concerns.
Ultimately, the biggest damage wrought by declining park attendance could be political. With the president and others bent on privatization, government agencies often have to justify their existence by touting the number of people they serve, as if they were fast-food franchises. Gramann sees this as another challenge for our parks: 'The Park Service will have to be able to make the case, as will a lot of other government agencies, that there is an importance to what they do that transcends growth and numbers.'