Over at the New West Network, Bill Schneider has an interesting take on why national park visitation has been declining. In a nutshell, he pegs the decline to the slow, but steady, increase in fees we're confronted with when we visit a national park.
He poses an interesting argument, but there's one substantial loose thread that needs to be tightened for his theory that "people, particularly backcountry enthusiasts ... shy away from the national parks in favor of nearby wildlands for hiking and other outdoor activities to avoid fees and regulation" to be nearly ironclad:
How have visits on other public lands fared over the same time period, which Bill begins back in 1996 when the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program debuted?
Way back in April I took a look at that question. What I found was that visitation to U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands yo-yo just as much, if not more, than national park visitation.
Here's what I wrote back then:
"Visitation to U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands has gone
from 58.9 million in 1996 to 62.1 million in 1999 before plummeting to
51.5 million in 2001. Since then it's crept upwards a bit, to 54
million in 2004. Over on U.S. Forest Service lands, visitation was roughly 209 million in 2000, 214 million in 2001, and 204.8 million in
Do those stats toss a bucket of cold water on Bill's argument? Not really. In fact, they shed light on visitation trends to all public lands. After all, let's not forget that those other public land-management agencies also are increasing fees for treading on their landscapes.
But I think the fact that visitation has been yo-yoing across the public landscape indicates that something in addition to fee increases is contributing to the ups and the downs. Personal economics certainly could be a factor, and let's not forget that international visitation has been down since 9-11.
Just the same, the emphasis by Washington to force individual national parks to assume more and more of the financial burden when it comes to meeting their needs is, in my mind, a terrible mistake, one that certainly will not benefit the parks for today's, or tomorrow's, visitors.
If there's any good to come of it, perhaps Bill hits on it in his post:
"Interestingly--and inadvertently, it seems--the NPS might be doing exactly the right thing. I prefer the agency be honest about it and say fees contribute heavily to declining visitation, but they could follow that admission with, “but we’re doing it on purpose because it’s in line with our mission to preserve wild nature.'"
All that said, I wonder what we'd be hearing if national park visitation were skyrocketing, cramming all parks -- not just the Yellowstones, Yosemites and Grand Canyons -- with millions of visitors every year, so many that the parks and their resources were being pounded into the ground?
Would the gateway communities be cheering? Would advocacy groups be decrying the rampant growth and its impacts and demand congressional hearings to explore the problem and search for solutions?
When it comes to national park visitation and gateway communities, I think we need to focus less on "economic development" in terms of those capitalizing on the parks, and more on "economic sustainability." We need to find that middle ground where the gateway communities, and everyone else who makes a living off the parks, can do so, without the need to over-run the parks with more and more visitors and related impacts.
And if we succeed in doing that, no one will gnash their teeth when visitation ebbs and flows, much as it has for quite some time.