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National Park Visitation Debate -- Here We Go Again


Didn't anyone tell these Half Dome hikers that visitation is down in the parks? San Francisco Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney.

Did you hear the latest story about national park visitation? It's being threatened by computers and video-games.

"We are seeing a fundamental shift away from people's interest in nature,'' researchers Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic wrote in a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The average person in America used to go to the national parks every year,” Patricia Zaradic told reporters. “It was the iconic American family vacation. Now, there are less people doing that.” Zaradic’s prior research linked a marked drop in U.S. national park admissions to the increase in popularity of electronic diversions such as watching television, surfing the Internet and playing video games.

“There’s a real and fundamental shift away from nature, certainly here in the U.S., and possibly in other countries,” says Oliver Pergams, a University of Illinois researcher who helped Zaradic carry out the study, funded in part by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. They also looked at national park admissions in Japan and Spain and found similar drops in visitation. Overall, the report concludes that nature recreation across all three countries has fallen by 18 to 25 percent on a per capita basis, depending on the type of outdoor activity. The only activity studied that was on the rise in terms of popularity was day-hiking, with everything else—fishing, backpacking, hunting—showing steep declines.

You can read the rest of this story at

Of course, this is not the first time we heard about parks, visitation, and computers, (and it likely won't be the last). Indeed, Pergams and Zaradic had a similar run of media attention in 2006 on the very same topic. And, of course, author Richard Louv pointed to this phenomenon in his book, Last Child in the Woods. And back in 2006 we heard a National Park Service official trace declining visitation to folks being too busy and not wanting to travel so far, in addition to losing interest in national parks.

In recent years we've also heard claims that park visitation is down due to higher entrance fees, due to the lackluster economy, and due to a decline in international visitors.

Is there really a problem, or is it simply a matter of how figures are tracked or interpretations made? In the latest story funded by the Nature Conservancy, park visitation trends were tracked since 1987 -- which just happened to be the banner year for the park system, a year when 287.2 million folks visited the parks. Now, if you spend any time sorting through the Park Service's visitation statistics, you'll quickly note that visitation goes up and down much like a yo-yo.

According to the agency, 2005 recreation visitation across the system totaled 273.5 million. That was a slight drop from 2004's 276.9 million visitors, but up quite a bit from 2003's total of 266 million. Looking farther back, in 1999 visitation reached 287.1 million, which was just a fraction shy of the all-time record of 287.2 million recorded in 1987. Between 1999 and 2003, national park visitation dipped to 285.9 million in 2000, 279.9 million in 2001, and 277.3 million in 2002 before bottoming in 2003.

Let's skip forward to 2007. Last year the park system reported 275.6 million visits, which was a pretty healthy bump from 2006's 272.6 million. So where are the news stories about Americans falling back in love with the parks, about kids taking up "GPS Rangers," about Lost and Survivor leading a resurgence in backwoods self-reliance?

Acadia National Park reported 2.2 million visitors last year, up from 2006 (2.08 million) and 2005 (2.05 million), but lagging 2004 (2.4 million). Big Bend National Park counted 364,856 heads in 2007, up from 2006 (298,717), 2004 (357,723) and 2003 (312,384), but not 2005 (398,583). Bryce Canyon saw 1 million visitors last year, more than in 2006 (890,676), 2004 (987,253) and 2003 (203,760) but not 2005 (1,017,681). Everglades National Park also reported an increase last year, to 1,074,764, up from 2006 (954,022) and 2003 (1,040,648), but not 2004 (1,181,355) or 2005 (1,233,837).

What should we make of all this? Perhaps nothing.

Perhaps we should wonder how accurate the counts are. After all, how accurate can the counts be at places like Great Smoky Mountains (9.4 million visits in 2007, up from each of the four preceding years), where there is no entrance fee and so no entrance stations to count heads? At Canyonlands National Park there are entrance stations at the Needles and Island in the Sky districts, but not at the Maze District. Anyone know how many folks entered Canyonlands that way?

Perhaps we should wonder how great a role economics plays in park visits. After all, quite a few folks think the United States is in a recession, with discretionary spending down.

Perhaps we should accept that park visitation fluctuates and isn't going to be on a consistent climb. For what it's worth, after NPS visitation peaked at that record 287.2 million in 1987, it plummeted all the way down to 255.8 million in 1990, rebounded a bit to 274.7 million in 1992, and then slid again to 265.8 million in 1996 before climbing back up to 287.1 million in 1999.

With such dramatic swings, I'd have to wonder whether the purported loss of interest in nature is really driving park visitation or whether something else is at work. And when most parks seem full to the brim during the summer months, when kids are out of school and on vacation, you might wonder when this trending drop in visitation is being counted.

Should park visitation be up? With more national park units today, in 2008, than in 1987, sure. But is there a visitation problem? When the Park Service already is struggling to keep up with maintenance needs, and when there are fewer interpretative rangers in the field, how much more annual visitation can the agency adequately and enjoyably handle?


Glacier uses explosives to clear trails (at least they did in 2005 when I worked there, on the highline trail for sure). It was employed to clear large rocks that would come down from the avalanches that might be blocking a trail or causing a hazard.

One of the ironies in all of this is that when visitation is high the cry goes up that the parks are being loved to death. And when visitation drops it changes to how can we get the numbers up.

I wonder if the visitor statistics for the competing recreation activities fluctuate in the same patterns as the NPS visitation,but at different times. People's recreation interests follow trends like everything else in our culture. Maybe low visitation years shouldn't be a worry, its a time to recoup for the next upswing.


That is one problem they could have. There's also issues like a declining middle class, changing family structures, etc...

I don't know about any specific reports on adapting park management to the changing US population off the top of my head but I'm writing a dissertation that deals with the question of an aging population's effects on visitor experiences.


Frank N, your quote "ALL THAT MATTERS IS ME" is slightly bent on the egotistical me-me generation, if not hell bent on pure selfishness. Maybe you can re-clarify your statement for me. What matters to me now, is the holistic sharing and caring about the parks and the general environment by us all...young and old! The failure to educate more young people and it's valuable virtues of the wilderness experience, is to me a national disgrace. I pity those who mock the rugged individualist who conquers fear, laziness and blazes the wilderness trails, and let's it become a learning experience to share. Yank these soft kids out of the stone cold malls and throw them into the wilderness, and start putting some rugged tissue (rid the baby fat) on there bodies for change, and have them develop some backbone.

Steve, I'd be interested in reading the whole report, too, if you can find it (or a link).

"To defrauded town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast.... A day in the mountains is worth a mountain of books." -- John Muir

Erik wrote:

wonder if they attempted taking the demographic changes the US has experienced into account in their models.

By demographic changes, do you mean the decline of caucasians as majority, or something else?

Somewhere I have a link to the work of an entire team of sociologists the NPS had working on how to adapt park management to the changing U.S. demographic makeup. I know they've invested a lot of study into this question.
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I've read the original paper by Pergams and Zaradic. I'd have to dig it out but I remember thinking they had a causality/correlation conflation. I'd be interested in reading their whole report. I wonder if they attempted taking the demographic changes the US has experienced into account in their models.

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