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

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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?!

Comments

Um, good??

The NPS system's primary mission, IMO, is the preservation of undamaged natural ecosystems, unique natural features, and sites of national historic importance. What better way to preserve a site than have fewer visitors tromping around them?

The thought that fewer people supporting the parks = less public funding to keep the parks healthy is a problem, but I'm not terribly upset that fewer people visit them in the first place.

When I hear that "we need to increase attendance at the parks", all I see is the government turning these national treasures into little Disney Worlds, where we clear-cut acres of old-growth to put up rides and let ATVs run rampant and let people shoot stuff. I'd rather have them be pockets of wilderness devoid of human activity.

Maybe I'm just being extra-cynical this evening ...

==================================================

My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com


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

Good. Parks were far too crowded. At least we won't hear the news talking about "loving our parks to death" any more.

• 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.

How much of this decline is due to problems accessing the park due to roads being washed out?

• 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.

Lower wilderness use means lower wilderness impact.

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

It's not the job of national parks to "entertain" people. The Organic Act says nothing of entertainment. If you want entertainment, visit Disneyland or watch a movie. User-friendly? Does this mean the NPS should install elevators to Crater Lake's water level (as many visitors--jokingly?--requested)? "Kid-safe"? What does this even mean?

• 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.

Here, some might say I'm coming across as prejudiced, but as an "honorary Mexican" (a title given by my best friend), I'll take the risk. I visited Silver Falls State Park in Oreogn on a Mexican holiday and picked up a full bag of trash on my hike down to the falls. I can say "good" to this statement. If other cultures can't learn how to preserve nature and not throw trash on trails, then they should stay out of national parks.

• 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.

I don't think it's the job of the NPS to "please" international visitors.

• 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.

Thank god. Parks are for preservation and not for entertainment. If you can't find entertainment in watching wildlife or sitting near a waterfall, then national parks are not for you. And "needed" convenience development? National parks are NOT cities.

• 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.

First, I don't think national parks "need" improving. They were fine they way they were (wild). However, this is a huge argument for moving national park funding from a tax-based funding system to one consisting of voluntary transactions.


Barky takes The Economist's point that the 'anti' policies of environmentalists have reduced Park attendance one step further, by describing them as "good".

I in turn will take Barky's point an additional step, by describing the attendance-reducing effect of environmentalist policies as "intentional".

It is commonplace to hear & read citizens lament that environmentalists are working to drive people from public facilities. I'm not saying anything new, by noting that environmentalists take up many supposedly protection-motivated causes, as surreptitious proxies to discourage & impair public use to the Parks.

I will diverge from The Economists interpretation that present trends will lead to further declines of public interest in the Parks, though, and will instead predict that environmentalist-instigated deprecation of the public & human role of Parks and other national lands will accelerate the decline of environmentalism in national politics.

Even here in the pages of The Traveler, I read comments openly dismissive of the role of democracy & representation in the setting of our Parks' and National policies.

I will diverge from The Economist's conclusions, by predicting that is the environmental movement, rather than our Park system, that is in "deep, deep trouble".


I agree with most of the comments above. I can add some commentary on the notion that International visitors are picking up the attendance slack. In early August 2008 I visited Yosemite and Sequoia and it was EXTREMELY rare to hear any English speaking visitors on all the walks to the points of interest or at visitor centers. I honestly felt like I was somewhere in Europe.


Frank expresses a sincere disdain for entertainment, and perhaps for people who seek it. Actually, though, entertainment is a normal, healthy human behavior. Our propensity for and capability to create settings for entertainment and the social & psychological rewards it brings, is one of the more attractive things about humans.

The enjoyment of entertainment is not the mark of a depraved or deviant person.

The culture of new Mexican Americans may be a generation or two out of step with white, environmentalist America ... but we know that not so long ago, the now purified & worthy 'good' Americans flocked to the bleachers to watch Yellowstone Rangers feed garbage to fighting bears at the dump. Real classy, those 'good' Americans. So the Mexicans threw down their litter - they should "stay out"? I have to think there is a more winning approach.

These sorts of attitudes will diminish the long term prospect that the environment movement will be able to effect the better causes & goals that they have taken up.


Actually, though, entertainment is a normal, healthy human behavior. Our propensity for and capability to create settings for entertainment and the social & psychological rewards it brings, is one of the more attractive things about humans.

Ted, I'm sure you appreciate that there are many definitions of "entertainment", and that what is arguably the most attractive trait of humans, our individuality, grants us all the right to define what entertains each of us. I would submit that it is obvious The Economist uses "entertainment" in the context of the referenced article with its grandest Disneyesque connotation. I have friends that save up for years to go to Disneyworld. To me, any location labeled as "Disney" is synonymous with hell on earth. To each his own, and I thank God for the Disney properties for those who favor them, as earnestly as I give thanks for the national parks I visit for precisely the purpose of escaping the social interactions forced upon me daily. You may call me a misanthrope, but I'm not the only one. (Sorry, started channeling John Lennon there.) Frank's frustration with the need to make every square inch of our country entertaining, user-friendly, and kid-safe is not unique to him. We're ever-growing in numbers and our refuges for the entertainment we enjoy are rapidly being taken from us. For now the parks, save for a hundred yard radius around the tourist-trap visitor centers/gift shops, still stand as havens for those seeking the best nature has to offer - sans-society. I pray they continue to be woefully boring.

Now, for an another argument, you can suggest that without an adequate study of how many people Like Frank and me pay taxes, this money shouldn't be used to prop up entertainment-less parks. We can save that for a later day. Being of several minds on that argument, I can't articulate my thoughts at this late hour.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI


Tastes change, institutions change and different races of people will predominate for varying periods time of in any given locale.

Enjoying wilderness and the outdoors is becoming a less and less popular pastime for the bloated, mind-numbed masses of postmodern America. That's just great by me! I don't want them there anyway.

The Euros enjoy the parks and they've got a more valuable currency (at least it is this week) to spend here so let's welcome them with open arms. They actually like to hike and learn about natural history too. Go figure.

No matter how busy a park is I can always find a place to go where I won't be bothered. A spot where I can take off my clothes and swim or roll boulders down on unsuspecting motor-homes while remaining undetected by the gun-toting LE rangers. Parks are a laugh a minute for me whether crowded or deserted.

This whole issue is a non-starter. The Economist? Does anyone actually read that anymore?


As nearly every individual in this forum has stated the same reaction to this discussion, National Parks were not established for the entertainment and modernization of contemporary America. Well, no sh*t Sherlock. Anyone who would demand our National Parks were "customized" should be deemed insane and sent away - in my mind. But the truth is that the majority of Americans tend towards a disrespectful approach to "animals, nature, wildlife, conservation et al..." Our society grows more intolerably ignorant with every passing day! just turn on the boob tube. It is appalling when someone can pick up a whole bag full of trash on a trail in one of our parks. The only thing that concerns me here is that this lack of interest would generate less tax dollars to fund the maintenance of the parks. My father has worked at Shenandoah National Park for nearly 30 years (getting ready to retire ; ) as a park maintenance crew member - Since Bush began the heavily outsourcing projects a few years back, I think around 9/11 thousands of National Park employees have been laid off and fired. With the amount of employees left there is no way to keep up with maintaining trails going deeper into wilderness, nor is it necessary. Over time there will be less trails, and less visitors in our parks, requiring less maintenance. Which means the parks will generate less "income", however the overhead will continue to decrease significantly. Our National Parks will cost obsolete tax dollars to maintain. It may also be mentioned that it is not a lack of interest of the public towards our National Park system that is the cause; the cause of the decline is the root of that issue, in that the Federal Government did not properly maintain interest in the parks with advertising. And the minimal advertisment they did use merely portraythe parks to be tourist attractions - instead of places of preservation! The Federal Government or ratherpowers above it have influenced the world to behave in ridiculous ways. Unless something is done about this CIA/KGB method of brainwashing to create profits for trillionaires, as in a conscious effort of the masses to reject "public opinion" altering techniques - this world is headed for sh*t anyways, and all of our National Parks will be nuked, and none of this will even matter - but if the world doesn't end soon in fire and brimstone then yes, conservation and global warming are important issues, and "public opinion" regarding these issues needs a major shift in the opposite direction, a task easily achieved by the powers that be ; )


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