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.

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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?


I have a hard time envisioning reduced attendance at the parks. Seems to me that yes, a lot of teens are hooked on video games, but it also seems that a lot of young adults are also hooked on adventure, rock climbing, hang gliding, surfing, snow boarding, and other outdoor activities. I am chronically impressed through my travels through the NPS exactly how many young people take full advantage of these parklands.

Do like the military, develop a "free" on line game that sparks interest and teaches "real" out door skills and the park system will be there for folks to try them out.(this will implant the seeds into a newer generation) and the next time this "cycle" again hits,the results may not be as severe.

It just makes a good story -- that's all. If the fortunes of our little travel business are any indication, there are still plenty of families willing to trade a couple of weeks in front of their TVs for a wholesome National Park experience.

Dan Wulfman, Founder
Tracks & Trails - Western Driving Adventures

From my own perspective, I think two data points on backcountry and wilderness use might be more telling than over-all park visitation statistics.

(Note: These are not "official" numbers. They were given to me by anonymous staff of these entities without official vetting by their media relations office.)

The first is from Yosemite National Park. The following pairs of visitation numbers for each of these years are in the order of [total wilderness permitees]/[total gate entrances] = [percent of users in wilderness]:
1980: 64,441 / 2,583,154 = 2.5%
1990: 51,923 / 3,237,834 = 1.6%
1996: 52,523 / 4,190,557 = 1.3%
2000: 48,248 / 3,550,065 = 1.4%

As park visitation has generally increased, according to these admittedly limited snapshots, wilderness visitation has not only declined in numbers, but also in percentage. But that tells a small part of the story. For another more interesting snapshot, let's go to the Inyo National Forest, and the Mount Whitney Ranger District. Their wilderness permit allocation limit has been set at about 20,000, the same number since around 1984. The first number for each year is number of parties, not the number of individuals, and the second number is the average of the number of nights on the permits.

1986: 7,582 -- 2.03
1995: 9,104 -- 1.89
2005: 9,959 -- 0.86

In the Yosemite case, fewer people are venturing into the wilderness, at least deep enough to stay overnight. In the Mount Whitney corridor, fewer people are going in groups, and far fewer people are spending the night at all. I'm not willing to say that there's a loss in interest in nature, but from these numbers there does appear to be a loss of interest in camping.
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10-minute weekly documentaries to help you appreciate our wild public lands.
A 501c3 non-profit project of Earth Island Institute.

OK. OK. Though these numbers are discouraging, because it is difficult for the general populace to care about outdoor issues if they don't spend any time in the outdoors; and it is difficult to recruit conservationists, wildlife biologists, botanists etc. if children aren't given an opportunity to learn to care and wonder about nature; I have to admit that there is part of me that says...."ALL RIGHT!" The fewer people out there, the smaller the crowds. The better chance for ME to find my little corner of heaven, and have it all to my self!!
After all, if I've learned anything at all in the last several years, it's that all that matters is ME! That's the way it is any more. Whether the issue is carrying guns in parks, oil and gas drilling, global warming, developments deeper and deeper into the wilderness, conservation, endangered species protection, snowmobiling in parks and using high explosives to keep trails open in areas known to have high concentrations of hibernating grizzly bears, health care, etc.,etc. ALL THAT MATTERS IS ME!!
Who cares what happens after I'm dead? Or what damage I may do? As long as I get everything I want while I'M alive?


While I've never heard of rangers using explosives to keep trails open, I do know the Forest Service employs them to , essentially, disintegrate pack animals that die in the backcountry so their carcasses don't attract predators....

Kurt, I was thinking about the howitzers used for avalanche control on Sylvan Pass when I wrote that. That's interesting about the pack animals, I didn't know that.

I never considered Sylvan Pass a trail, although once it surely was. That said, don't forget that the Burlington Northern RR wants to use howitzers to blast the avalanche chutes that lie in Glacier NP above its tracks...Glacier officials have gone on record opposing that possibility, but Interior officials in Washington so far have refused to let that decision be printed in the Federal Register.

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.

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.
The WildeBeat "The audio journal about getting into the wilderness"
10-minute weekly documentaries to help you appreciate our wild public lands.
A 501c3 non-profit project of Earth Island Institute.

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

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.