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The Economist Warns that America’s National Park System is in Deep, Deep Trouble


Does it matter that fewer Americans are interested in visiting Yosemite National Park? Photo by Jon Sullivan via Wikipedia.

It’s always interesting to see how America’s National Park System is portrayed internationally. One way to get a handle on that is to read park-themed articles published on an occasional basis in The Economist. The authoritative English language weekly news and international affairs publication, certainly one of the most respected of the world’s widely circulated periodicals, has a circulation of about 1.3 million. Published by the Economist Group and edited in the UK, The Economist is distributed in over 200 countries around the world. Nearly half of its readership is outside North America.

So, what has The Economist been saying about America’s national parks? Here’s the gist.

(Oh, by the way; when we say that The Economist says this, or The Economist says that, we can’t know exactly who is doing the saying. The publication – which calls itself a “newspaper,” even though it is glossy paper-printed and looks exactly like a newsweekly magazine -- doesn’t believe in bylines.)

The article of interest here is dated July 12, 2008, and bears the “Out of the Wilderness” title. Its main observations, conclusions, and assertions are these:

• Attendance for America’s national parks peaked more than 20 years ago (in 1987).

• Declining attendance at national parks is a well-established, long-term trend, not just a transient event attributable to factors such as abrupt increases in fuel costs.

• The annual attendance declines for California’s Yosemite National Park (9 of the past 13 years) should be considered ominous, given that California is America’s most dependable bellwether state and Yosemite is California’s most attractive park.

• Having become more satisfied with the recreational options available in/near cities, Americans are now less interested in outdoor recreation opportunities in rural, back country, and wilderness locales.

• Americans believe that their national parks are much less entertaining, less user-friendly, and less kid-safe than they should be.

• Hispanics, the fastest growing component of the American population, show little interest in visiting or paying for national parks; since Hispanics will soon account for 20-25 percent of country’s population, this should be a matter of great concern.

• International tourists are taking up much of the slack created by diminished park-visiting interest on the part of Americans. By implication, the National Park Service needs to work much harder attracting and pleasing them.

• The National Park Service does not understand the implications of declining attendance and has failed to effectively address the issue.

• Environmentalists pose the greatest obstacle to restoring national park attendance to historically higher norms; by blocking needed convenience- and entertainment- related developments in the parks, environmentalists have taken away the main tool for increasing park attractiveness.

• As national park visitation continues to decline, Americans will become less willing to see their tax money spent to improve the national parks and expand the National Park System.

Well, there you have it. Not very pretty, is it?

You’ll be reading more about the referenced trends and issues in Traveler. Remember, I’m not vetting this article's observations and conclusions at this time, just drawing them to your attention as an indication of how the international press is reporting on America's national parks, “the best idea America ever had.” Perhaps you’d like to comment.

Incidentally, if you should happen to read the entire article in The Economist, you will find an absolutely bizarre statement that reads like this: "Were it not for British and German tourists enjoying the weak dollar, the parks would be desolate." Folks, that has got to be one of the most asinine statements about our national parks that I have seen in recent years, and I have seen some beauts. What were they thinking?!


Frank, I'm sure you had a great time knocking around in those canyons, and that they're no worse off for it. Same goes for the idylls I've enjoyed in a host of remote locations while hiking, running, climbing and biking. The occasion for the original essay is the Economist speculating that American parks are in trouble. Managing them in a way that invites new users in and gets them involved with the parks is a necessity ... otherwise the parks become an expensive (and expendable) preserve for a tiny, aging and annoyingly intolerant sliver of society. If preservation were the only mission of the NPS then their mission would be simple: keep everybody out. The reality is that we're all "entertainment seekers" out there. All park visitors have impacts and all of them need to be managed. Besides. you and I both know that anyone who is willing to hike, bike or paddle more than a few miles from the parking lot is usually going to find a whole lot of solitude. If I have to go a few miles farther because the parks are filling up with enthusiastic supporters I'll consider it a blessing.

Mark: I, as a member of the Grant Grove Bushwhackers Club, condemn your view of off trail hiking. The best hiking is to be found off-trail, but you are right that it's not for everyone and putting on hiking boots does not automatically qualify you to be John Muir, although my hikers are far more suited to off trail than Muir's (pictured here).

The pretentious attitude of too many park enthusiasts is that their activities are right and everyone else's are wrong

Well, I don't know about value statements like "right" and "wrong". I do know that certain activities are "wrong" for me, however. For example, as a park ranger at Zion, I hiked all the front country trails. And hated them. Then I hiked the back country trails. I hated those, too. Finally, I got off trail. Why? Because on the Emerald Pools Trail, people hiked in high heels while talking on cell phones and blabbered incessantly about the most inane, inconsequential topics (I'm my pretentious opinion, of course.). In the Narrows, a group of Boyscouts were hooping and hollering at the top of their lungs while ripping chunks of moss off the water falls upstream from Orderville Canyon.

So, I went off trail, exploring Zion's magnificent side canyons. I stayed off cryptobiotic soil and walked on slickrock or in washes, often without even leaving a footprint. I saw things very few have seen, and when I was there, I was the only one. Rock art, Anasazi ruins, big horn, waterfalls, fox, deep pools, cooled canyons. I am among the elite hikers who has seen these places without leaving a trace, so I will proudly wear the badge of an elitist.

For me, this is what feels right in national parks: silence and respect. I hold no pretension that this is what's right for everyone. I do know that the way I choose to enjoy national parks doesn't interfere with anyone else's ability to enjoy a national park. Day tourists and entertainment seekers would do well to consider that.

And we would do well not to increase any entertainment activities in parks that would interfere with other's ability to enjoy quiet contemplation or solitude.

I'm surprised to read so many posts lauding the not-so-noble pursuit of hiking off trail! From the standpoint of recreation impact, a gaggle of tourists who stay on the trail will generally have fewer impacts on the natural world than an off-trail rambler in search of mystic connections with the landscape. The pretentious attitude of too many park enthusiasts is that their activities are right and everyone else's are wrong. Placing a birding guide in your daypack does not make you a field biologist, and donning a pair of leather hiking boots does not make you John Muir. Encouraging a broader spectrum of recreation options in national parks won't destroy them, and might significantly improve support for them, so long as the activities are well managed. Of course, some folks will always feel that they are exempt from bothersome restrictions like avoiding off-trail travel ... after all they're pursuing something noble, while the great unwashed are merely getting in the way.

Kirby et al,

An important part of my reaction to concerns expressed here on the National Parks Traveler that we are at risk of 'Shock & Awe' development in the Parks, stems from my experience with Olympic Nat'l Park. I have only superficial & spotty exposure to other Parks.

For those who know the Olympic situation, worries about amusement park-style commercial ventures in Parks across the nation are something of a head-scratcher. "Really?"

There is no sign of the slightest tolerance for any rinky-dink Tiki bars on the Queets River, nor anything of the sort anywhere else. Exactly the opposite: the Park is unrelentingly hostile to all in-holders, with especially intense animus for businesses of any sort. The unit management have been pressuring all concessionaires throughout my lifetime (and before), and when they finally 'break' them, they close & raze the facilities.

For those who do not know, the Olympic Park hosts one of the highest-profile hydroelectric dam and reservoir-lake removal projects in the United States (or world). The Elwah River (draining the north-central Olympic Peninsula & Park) contains two dams, one within the Park. Both totally block salmon-migration (A really stupid (I daresay, "criminal") oversight ... or, was it purposeful - to take the salmon away from the Elwah Tribe?).

Both Elwah dams are slated for removal, quite soon. This will be a historic project that will receive high media coverage. Congressional funding has been approved.

There is zero prospect of a dam on the Queets. Nor anywhere else in the Park (or even outside it). Dams are totally yesteryear - certainly in this part of the nation.

New roads? Better paving? No sign of it. No, the Park closes roads, dawdles for long periods to fix serious damage, then leaves the roadway in a condition that clearly communicates, "Please realize, we maintain this road at all, only under protest. We hate it, and it will be gone at the first excuse we can find".

That is the reality in Olympic Nat'l Park. In 50 years, the only new facilities I know about in the northern & western parts of the Park, have been a few new toll-shacks in the roads. I am not quite saturation-familiar with the eastern & southern Park - but I have never heard of anything supporting new business anywhere in Olympic. Any attempt to say, develop a little in-holder parcel on the Queets River into a cute tourist-trap would meet a raging, fire-breathing dragon in the Park bureaucracy. No fooling.

The Park itself develop new tourist venues? That's a ha-ha.

To me, this isn't about whether Frank can get to his solitude now, but whether his children or grandchildren will have that option. It's a fact that a majority (vast majority, in many cases) of the land in each park is wild, kidless, and free of anthropocentric sound. Take Ted's beloved Olympic. There are about 5 or 6 places, each the size of a soccer field or two, that everyone gathers. And Olympic is gigantic. It takes 7 or 8 hours to drive around the thing at 50 mph. Even tight little parks like Acadia provide shelter from the masses with a quick trip off-trail. Finding solitude now isn't the issue. The problem is the fact that wilderness is not entertaining, kid-safe, or user-friendly. Thus, the screaming masses that speak with their wallets in the cafeterias detest wilderness. The more wilderness that is converted to tourist-friendly land, the better off the parks will be - financially, if not morally. If I was in need of a thousand-dollar medicine to save my life and had not a penny to my name, you might find me holding up a convenience store. Likewise, I believe it's prudent to be wary of the behavior of the NPS should its financial woes worsen.

Ted, I went hiking up the Queets valley a couple weeks ago. Neither words nor pictures can do justice to that place. But I'm also picturing the slope at the trailhead being a waterslide that shoots out the river. They'll be lifeguards there of course. ( I almost drowned fording it on the way out.) The gravel bar between the Sam's and Queets will have a little Tiki Bar. I can see the dollar signs now. We'll need to pave the road in, of course. The winter floods might be a problem. Perhaps a dam up near Service Falls. That canyon could hold a lot of water...

That's the nightmare I have every time I hear the parks aren't entertaining enough.


I believe the real idea behind making Parks, that made making Parks (etc) a Great Idea, was the notion to preserve the physical resource itself. Why is the physical preservation of an area a Great Idea? Because it is a concept that many people can relate & resonate to ... and can agree upon.

In this view, anything that physically alters the preserved resource is to be avoided, while conditions that do not change the resource, but may irritate some visitors, are of lesser or no importance.

Have there indeed been those figures (as you quote) who championed the subjective experience of a person who is not being 'bothered' by other persons? Yes, of course. But these notions are not what made the Parks-idea a Great Idea.

I do not confuse or confabulate road-building etc (a physical change) with non-physical, transient conditions such the presence of a crowd, or shouting, dashing, excited children. And neither should anyone else. Physical alterations of the preserved area are one thing, and subjective but non-physical conditions are another.

I wish nobody had to endure the urban onslaught that you describe in your life, Frank (I shudder) ... though I also know there are those who find it stimulating & satisfying. My empathy is with your plight ... but I cannot concur that because the urban living situation is stressful for some of us, the Parks ought to therefore be defined as "quiet space". Not as a priority.

Parks are properly - in my view - "natural space". If people whooping it up don't alter the "nature" that inhabits the space, then my irritation at their revelry is really just a 'personal problem'.

Almost unavoidably, attempting to define Parks in terms of "silence and solitude", etc, is to exclude people from the public resource, for no other reason than to create ... an absence of people. Well, strictly speaking, who is to enjoy this solitude: how are we to say, "All you people, stay out, so this one person can have solitude"? Everyone: silence please.

No. That is not the route to the solution desired by those who feel stressed and want an 'escape'.

But the solitude they seek does exist. Both SaltSage236 and myself have described it forthrightly. Get off the roads. Get away from the campgrounds. Walk. Away from the trailhead: then, away from the trail.

There is silence that ROARS right through you ... with the seething horde pulsating through their migration-routes & water-holes elsewhere. There is solitude that will CRUSH you, while the crowd-addicts get their fix at the usual opium dens ... elsewhere.

Please, re-read SaltSage236' comment that begins, "Thank God national parks often have...", and my reply to him/her, which begins, "SaltSage236; You are really so right! I felt silly...". You will see in these two comments, that we both consider the values you seek to be a central part of our own value-system. The only difference is, we go out and get them ... right through & past the madding crowd.

What you want, Frank, is out there ... but you must go where it is, not where it isn't.

I disagree with Ted absolutely. Search for "national park" + "national park" "quiet contemplation" on Yahoo!, and you'll get 15,200 results. Search for "national park" + solitude and you'll get over 1.5 million results.

Solitude and silence are a necessary component of national park preservation.

The Badlands mission statement mentions providing the opportunity for quiet contemplation.

Mather stated, "We must guard against the intrusion of roads into sections that should forever be kept for quiet contemplation and accessible only by horseback or hiking."

Donald J. Berry, Assistant Secretary for FWS testified that, "Snowmobiling generates significant levels of air and noise pollution, often results in the harassment of wildlife, and conflicts with other visitors' quest for solitude and introspection in our park system."

Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote, "Quiet contemplation of pristine environments is, for many people, an integral part of the experience of visiting National Parks, and the National Park Service’s policies should be geared toward minimizing noise."

The National Parks and Conservation Association, in written testimony for Congress, stated "It seems logical to conclude . . . the need to preserve places relatively unimpaired by certain human activities that might detract from the experience of those visitors who wish to experience the park as the Voyageurs did, in a wilderness-like setting free from the roar of snowmobiles and motorboats. Some areas of silence and solitude are crucial for providing this type of opportunity for visitors."

Then there is John Miller's plea to preserve Crater Lake's silence: "The plan is now to build, have the government build, a drive around the lake, so that all these points may be considered in a single day from a carriage. And a great hotel is planned! And a railroad must be made to whisk you through the life-and-vigor giving evergreen forest of Arden. Well, so be it, if you must so mock nature and break the hush and silence of a thousand centuries. . ."

Noise of crying babies, jet aircraft, motorized boats, cars, Harleys, snowmobiles, car alarms, crowds, do more than "offend the dignity of some" and are more than "irritants ... of personal perception". They ruin the ability of people to enjoy solitude and silence in national parks (even in some of the remotest areas), and I believe that is a main reason why national parks were created in the first place and are needed now more than ever.

I live in the city and someone is building a monstrous building across from my house. During the day, I must endure shouting construction workers, hammering, and the incessant beeping of heavy equipment. When I visit national parks, I do so to escape this urban hell and to get away from anything I can experience in the city.

I contend that noise and noisy entertainment and noisy visitors in national parks are in fact harmful, contrary to Ted's assertion. They threaten fundamental principals national parks were based upon: quiet contemplation and solitude. They make it so that no one can escape the drudgery of modern, "civilized", urban life, and this noise pollution tarnishes the purpose of national parks. We wouldn't defend most forms of pollution in our national parks, so why is noise pollution dismissed as simply a matter of personal perception?

Back to the thread: more entertainment in national parks will lead to increased noise pollution.

this is a great post, and a very interesting discussion.

@ saltsage236:

"Sure, "park" is an entirely anthropocentric moniker for a tract of land protected for its natural values moreso than its direct recreational benefit to humans. But here's the rub: Call our parks what you want, but if they exist primarily for the facilitation of fun, our society will lose more than it could ever gain from the Disneyfication of national parks. We benefit in countless ways by preserving our most spectacular and special lands in national parks. Each has educational value; scientific value; the value of national parks, like wilderness areas, being sources of both clean water and, ideally, clean air; and, yes, even recreational value."

i don't disagree! all i'm saying is that if people aren't connected with this resource, or at least educated to see their value and tangible efforts aren't made to enhance people's understanding of the parks (by someone, i'm not calling in the gov here) then we're going to lose the baseline funding needed to simpling maintain (let alone improve) our beautiful parks. getting people into the parks is essential to their protection, but is (agreed) a double edge sword as well.

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