Is there a visitation problem at national parks? That's a question that's been batted back and forth quite a bit this year, going back to April when Representative Stevan Pearce called his House parks subcommittee together to ponder whether visitation is declining.
I'm returning to this question because in recent weeks there have been stories about a substantial drop in campground visitors to national parks and because I've taken another look at the various categories of visitation tracked by the Park Service.
What I've come to conclude is that it's no easy task keeping track of folks visiting the parks these days, or trying to figure out what motivates them to visit a park.
Too, I've discovered there can be problems when you mix actual numbers with projected numbers. For instance, back in April when he testified before the subcommittee John Schoppmann, who was representing Forever Resorts, a big parks concessionaire, tossed around quite a few visitation numbers to buttress his argument that "after peaking some years ago, recreational visitation to the national parks has declined or, at the very best, remained flat."
Well, one problem with Mr. Schoppmann's testimony was that part of it was based on projections, not actual numbers.
For instance, Mr. Schoppmann testified that in 2005 the "projected" visitation at Great Smoky Mountains National Park was to be 8.6 million visitors. Well, in actuality it was 9,192,477, a difference of roughly 600,000. If he had been able to count those extra 600,000 visitors, Mr. Schoppmann wouldn't have been able to say that Great Smoky realized "almost a 10 percent drop" between 2003 and 2005.
Another big difference came when he used Everglades' "projected" 2005 visitation total of 988,000 when he cited "a 2 percent drop" between 2003 and 2005. Actual numbers show Everglades greeted 1,233,837 visitors during 2005, or 245,837 more than Mr. Schoppmann expected. At Grand Canyon, while he cited projected 2005 visitation of 3.7 million in decrying a "10 percent drop" from 2003 totals, in truth there were 4,401,522 visitors to the canyon that year, or roughly 700,000 more than Mr. Schoppmann used in his argument and an increase of roughly 300,000, or better than 7 percent, from 2003.
So if you take into consideration just those three parks, the park system saw 1,545,837 million more visitors than Mr. Schoppmann would have you believe. And if you want to compare 2003 visitation to 2005 across-the-board, something he didn't do for some reason that I'll leave up to you to decipher, the national park system saw roughly 7.4 million more visitors in 2005 versus 2003 totals, a system-wide increase of, if my math is correct, 28 percent!
Now, I'm not saying Mr. Schoppmann's use of projected rather than actual numbers was intentional, as the Park Service might not have issued the 2005 totals in time for the April 6 hearing at which he testified.
But something else he likely didn't consider, or didn't want to mention, was that the 2005 hurricane season generated a 2.5 million drop in visitation at Gulf Islands National Seashore, a total that comprises 74.5 percent of the national park system's overall visitation decline from 2004 to 2005. Another lesson is that the Park Service's visitation projections are pretty soft.
Now, what about those camper numbers? That's another perplexing situation.
For example, the latest news stories say there's been a 20 percent decline in campers at national parks during the past decade. Indeed, if you look at the NPS's stats, 1996 saw 6,452,014 tent and RV campers, while last year there were 5,142,556.
But....no two parks are created equal, at least statistically. At Zion National Park in Utah, officials shrug off their 2 percent decline in visitors. Spokesman Tom Haraden told the Salt Lake Tribune a 2 percent decline really isn't that big of a deal when you have 2.7 million visitors a year. As for campers, specifically, he told the newspaper that, "There very well may be fewer campers, but our campsites are always full."
Cross-state at Arches National Park officials say that while overnight visits are down slightly, from 39,679 last year to 38,503 this year, overall visitation is up 3.6 percent. And spokesman Paul Henderson told the Salt Lake newspaper that the drop in overnight stays isn't noticed. "The reservations are booked pretty solid many months in advance and we start with our current night vacancies at 7:30 each morning," says Henderson. "Usually we have a full campground by 9 or 10 a.m."
I don't know what the answers are, but I think these numbers show that overall visitation totals to the parks are extremely hard to ascertain and that, in light of the longstanding cyclical trend of park visitation, it's alarmist to panic and to use that panic to open up the parks to more snowmobiles or personal watercraft, machines that Mr. Schoppmann contends are "traditional motorized recreational pursuits."
And surely what certainly must be taken into consideration when you talk about declines in park visitation are the economy, the cost of gas, other recreational options, and the fact that Americans are finding it more difficult, not less, to take vacations.
"The long weekend is replacing the two-week time off," says Jim Gramann, a professor at Texas A&M University and a visiting social scientist for the National Park Service. "That means fewer overnight stays in the national parks."
That said, trying to make firm conclusions from Park Service visitation numbers and trends can be a guessing game. The numbers themselves attest to that. For instance, when comparing 2000 and 2003 numbers against 2005 totals, the following stands out:
* 2005 national battlefield and national battlefield park visitation was down compared to both 2003 and 2000
* 2005 national historic site visitation was down compared to 2000, but up against 2003
* 2005 national historical park visitation was flat against 2000 but up against 2003
* 2005 national lakeshore visitation was up over both 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national memorial site visitation was up over both 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national military park visitation was down compared to 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national monument visitation was down compared to 2000, but up over 2003
* 2005 national park visitation was down compared to 2000, but essentially flat compared to 2003
* 2005 national parkway visitation was down against 2000, but up over 2003
* 2005 national preserve visitation was up over both 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national recreation area visitation was down compared to 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national reserve visitation was up over 2000 but down from 2003
* 2005 national river visitation was flat compared to 2000 and up over 2003
* 2005 national seashore visitation was down compared to both 2000 and 2003
* 2005 national wild and scenic river visitation was up compared to both 2000 and 2003
And then, of course, I don't think anyone has come up with a specific "carrying capacity" for the entire park system, let alone individual units. I could be wrong, but it seems to me the only ones complaining about visitation are those looking to make a buck off the parks.