Debate over what drives, or doesn't drive, national park visitation has been going on for years. In recent years, though, it's grown particularly alarmist, as if the parks were becoming passe, no longer the darlings of America's vacationers, in danger of withering on the vine because they weren't been overwhelmed by tourists every day of the year.
If you've been listening closely, of course, you know that those voicing the loudest discontent are not national park advocates, not the National Parks Conservation Association, not The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club or other "green" groups, but rather organizations such as the American Recreation Coalition and its motorized affiliates looking to grow their revenues.
A thoughtful, and thought-provoking, piece appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta this past weekend that takes a stab at what's driving, or not driving, visitation at the national parks. Written by Bill Tweed, the former chief naturalist at Sequoia National Park, the commentary points to three possible keys that are affecting park visitation.
Those keys, believes Mr. Tweed, are the maturing of America's tourism industry, one that today offers folks myriad options for their vacation dollars; the sky's-the-limit cornucopia of recreation outlets, be they computer games or soccer games, and; the growing distance between nature and Americans.
To some extent, the folks making the most noise over slippage of national park visits are responsible for some of that slippage as they're in large part behind the many alternatives Americans have when it comes to choosing how they'll spend their free time. Now, to continue growing their revenues, they're eying national parks as new, unscathed playgrounds, and they want in.
As Mr. Tweed points out, when the tourism industry was much less developed, Americans really had only a few places to go. National parks were among the nation's first developed destinations... Today, of course, ATVers rip through national forests and across Bureau of Land Management lands with gusto, climbers and kayakers have a global playground, and some folks who used to hike through national parks now rip down single-tracks outside the parks.
As for the nature deficit that exists among today's youth, that's in part the fault of all of us who love the parks and forests and didn't or couldn't find the time to fully share that love with our children.
In closing, Mr. Tweed believes that (I)f we have the sense to leave our parks alone in this new century and preserve their special character, they will continue to add something of great value to our society.
To that I would add that we need to exhibit the good sense not to let those who bemoan the cycles of national park visitation force us into turning the parks into something they were never intended to be -- the recreational answer to every form of recreation under the sun, with higher and higher fees to support them.