Park entrance fees, it seems from my very unofficial survey, are not what's behind the flattening of national park visits. If you took time to read the comments, there wasn't one individual who objected to the range of fees now being charged at the parks.
Which begs the question: Why is park visitation relatively flat?
There really doesn't appear to be any hard and fast reason. As Kath noted in a comment appended to the latest ARC post, visitation trends are all over the board. "Some parks in or close to cities had decreases. Some parks that require long drives had increases. Some had decreases," she noted after sifting through the Park Service's numbers.
At the same time, she was happy visitation is not rocketing upwards."Isn't it better for the parks and avid park visitors to not be so crowded?" wrote Kath.
Alan summed up the fears of several commentors when he wrote that, "with park entrance fees, it's my sense that they're being used not to bolster operating budgets that Congress cut, but as an excuse for Congress not funding the parks to the level they should be. In the longer term, they're just as likely to be precusors toward the privatization of some parks."
That is a fear quite a few folks have.
In regard to the ARC post I mentioned above, kudos to Sabattis for pointing out that ARC's reference to 63 million park visits per year was no doubt specific to actual "national parks" and not historic areas, battlefields, monuments and the like.
Just the same, that still means ARC wants to focus its various modes of recreation in places that, in my mind, are most susceptible to being impacted and impaired. As others have commented on this blog, national parks should be immune from the hazards of motorized recreation, be it in the form of snowmobiles, ATVs, or personal watercraft.
And frankly, I don't think park visitation is going to be rescued by more motorized recreation or by opening up the parks to geo-caching rallies or mountain bikers. While these all are valid forms of recreation, I would argue that they are not appropriate activities for national parks. There are countless other areas throughout America where these activities would be much more suitable and where their fans would be more comfortable.
As to what to make of the visitation trends, well, that's an issue that might not be as much of a problem as some think. Is there a fear that the Park Service will go out of business? Are Yellowstone's roughly 3 million annual visitors and Great Smoky Mountains' roughly 9 million not enough? If national parks were losing their luster, why is real estate rimming parks so expensive? Why are "luxury homes" being planned for the borders of Great Smoky Mountains?
I sense the only ones concerned about the visitation trends are those who make a buck off the parks. As I've noted previously, gateway communities are entitled to vibrant economies. But that doesn't mean the park system must be exploited to all ends.
While U.S. Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico plans to convene his House parks subcommittee once again on September 13th to discuss visitation in the parks, I don't think there's an overnight panacea waiting in the wings. Rather, in the case of "national parks," perhaps we as a society need to better appreciate nature and all it holds, and pass that appreciation on to the younger generations. We need to get off our couches and get out into the woods, the mountains and the high country. We need to break the electronic hypnotism that mesmerizes so many of today's youth.
If anything, Congress shouldn't be concerned with national park visitation. It should be concerned with underfunding the Park Service to the point where the agency can't properly maintain and operate these parks, seashores, battlefields and monuments.