Unfaithful to Old Faithful

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

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

‘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

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.’

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