Have High Gas Prices Deterred Travel within Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

A visitor enjoys the viewscape at River Bend Overlook on the scenic drive in Roosevelt’s north unit. Will higher gas prices make the north unit a less visited place? Digital Media Library, Federal Highway Administration National Scenic Byways Program.

It’s well established that high gas prices are causing many day-trippers, weekenders, and vacationers to travel less and choose destinations closer to home. Travel experts have assumed (but not conclusively proven) that national parks in more distant locations may experience significant long term declines in attendance.

Now there’s evidence to suggest that tourists visiting national parks might be driving less inside the parks as well. At North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, fewer early summer motorists elected to drive to the park’s most remote unit.

As the Memorial Day to Labor Day summer season got underway at Roosevelt, there was a big drop in visitation at the park’s north unit, a 19,410-acre natural area that features a 13.7-mile scenic loop with access to excellent camping, backpacking, birding, hiking, and horseback riding. June visitor numbers at the north unit dropped 30% compared to same month last year.

This attendance drop was very unusual. The north unit typically gets about 10% of the park’s visitation, and the park’s total visitation was actually higher than the year before (up 5.7% through July to a total of nearly 264,000). Why should the north unit have gotten significantly fewer visitors when more visitors were coming to the park?

For a map of the park, visit this site. Be sure to select higher resolution ("+").

Tom Cox, the chief ranger at Roosevelt, believes that high fuel prices were probably the main reason for the conspicuous attendance decline at the north unit. The north unit is relatively isolated, being situated on U.S. 85 (a two-lane highway) about 16 miles south of Watford City. Only some of the motorists who visit the more popular south unit, which is close to Interstate 94 and the tourist-historic town of Medora, elect to drive 65 miles to visit the north unit. Most do not. It is, after all, a 65-mile trip to an isolated place. It seems reasonable to assume that the high fuel costs made it easier for many more motorists to “just say no” to that north unit visit last June.

What we are to make of all this? Can we assume that motorists will be traveling less and avoiding more distant attractions within other national parks as well? Surely not. We can’t even make valid conclusion about the situation at Roosevelt. This is just an observation, not a systematic study. We’re only talking about one short-term event at a single unit of one park.

About the only thing we can say for sure is that there’s an interesting line of inquiry to follow – perhaps with a more systematic study of a representative sample of parks over a period of at least several months. Meanwhile, anecdotal information from various other national parks suggests that people have been traveling shorter distances this summer.

Many people believe that American motorists will rapidly get used to higher fuel prices and resume traveling pretty much the way they did when gas was cheaper. Time will tell. Over at Roosevelt, Ranger Cox reports that north unit visitation has leveled out in recent weeks. This might mean that motorists visiting Roosevelt are getting used to the higher fuel prices. One might also argue that only increasing attendance at the north unit would be a true signal of that.

The fact that total attendance at Roosevelt was up for the year through July is downright intriguing. If high fuel prices have deterred travel to distant national parks, why has this North Dakota park, which lies far beyond the day-tripping range of major population centers, attracted more visitors this year than it did during the same period last year? This fuel price thing sure is complicated.

Comments

I don't buy the fuel cost scenario. Roosevelt may be right on an Interstate (literally), but it's a long drive from anywhere and not even all that easy to fly into. If someone has driven there, they aren't going to blink at driving another 75 minutes to the North Unit, regardless of gas prices.

June may have been an anomaly. (I was there the first week of August.) I think you're going to see declining visitation as a percentage of total visitation in the North Unit and similar outlying areas of parks simply because people aren't interested in them. Instant gratification and family-friendly entertainment are becoming more and more mandatory for the vast majority of travelers. The North Unit is not very interesting to Joe Tourist. Neither is the Schoodic Peninsula in Acadia, North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the South Unit of Badlands, etc. All of those outlying parcels require extra effort for little entertainment reward. Listening to the rangers explaining to people at the VC what the North Unit of Roosevelt was, they were almost warning people not to go there. Of course, the rangers were talking to busloads of senior citizens and families that looked like the Von Trapps. Those are the visitors that are raising the numbers in general, but they certainly aren't going to visit remote areas. There are no horse rides at the NU, the road isn't a friendly loop, and it's too far from Medora - which is quite an extraordinary tourist trap (emphasis on the word trap).

Just my opinion, based on a similar dearth of data as the gas theory. I think it's more the "Last Child in the Woods" phenomenon.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

I assume that Theodore Roosevelt Nat'l Park is a proxy for examining the wider potential impact of rising fuel costs on Park visitation.

With sustained high fuel prices, there will be continuing pressure on the motor home, travel trailer, and large pickup markets. Ford - who's bread & butter is the big pickup for towing - is already reporting a steep reduction of sales in that specific recreational market.

Downward trends in RV-related sales would go on for years, and be cumulative. People who have a nice, comfortable unit now, will wait until it no longer makes them happy, to buy a new one. At that time, they will assess and decide whether to replace their unit, or exit the market.

So it's much more than just a question of the cost per mile for gas; it's also the long-range decisions about what kind of vehicle to buy. Many will choose to no longer buy & maintain a large recreational vehicle at all. Instead, they may just fly to Banff or the Bahamas and hang out for a week or two.

The fundamentals of the petroleum industry clearly suggest that prices may continue to rise. Presumably, until they price themselves right out of the market, until demand drops significantly and prices fall to what the market will bear. Some say, "Demand will never drop": There is an element of truth in this, in that many will stubbornly cling to their preferred patterns & lifestyles. To the extent we accept this as broadly true, though, we should also recognize that it probably points to a form of 'brittleness' in public behavior. Instead of a gradual adaptation, it could instead mean a sudden large-scale shift in folks' views & actions.

How high will/can fuel prices go? It seems an oversight to take up the general questions of this post, without acknowledging what we all know: Prices could (and we assume will) go higher. The main question really is, how much higher?

I have seen believable economic assessments that we can go to $5-6/gal, and still sustain a close semblance of our present economic dynamic. Beyond that, and we begin to suffer various forms of internal breakdown. If that is the case, and that is (therefore) the target price-range, then I'd say we are not so far from it now that the additional increase will make too much basic difference. If prices go beyond, though, then both the fuel-bill & the collateral economic turmoil could devastate the tourism industry.

If the Richard Cheneys and Saudi families of the world figure that fuel should go to $7-8/gal, then tourism as we know it may be one of the sectors of our economy that have already been slated for sacrifice. (Its emphasis on fuel-use could very well promote it high up the list for deprecation ... as would appear has been the fate of commercial airlines.)

Many people are now becoming 'concerned' about our long-term economic outlook. This may apply especially to those who have the latitude to decide whether to buy a quarter million dollar RV ... a half million dollar RV ... or skip the RV thing altogether and go a different route. These are people who often got where they are by being smart with money, and who patently have an 'estate' to protect. Wage-earners are commonly 'just along for the ride', and also have little latitude in their fiscal affairs, even if they decline to embrace the typical fatalism.

It does seem to me that the price of fuel, the future price of fuel, changes in vehicle-purchase patterns, and the mounting indication of a long stretch of rough road ahead for the national & global economy could all be pointing at serious-to-grave effects on Nat'l Park visitation.

Oil prices fell below $106 a barrel Tuesday in Asia - $10 below its close Friday.

Beamis notes:

"Oil prices fell below $106 a barrel Tuesday..."
And a welcome trend it is! Coming near the end of the summer demand season, following speculative bidding with an eye on Hurricane Gustav (now proving to be fairly mild), and well before the winter cold season, there is strong down-pressure on crude. At the moment.

From the President on down through the ranks - Left & Right - we are being warned that oil ain't gonna be like it used to was for long. At this point, the problem is probably mainly that strong demand is leaning on the production capacity. Not (yet) that capacity is collapsing out from under us.

Fluctuations - a 'roller coaster' market - are exactly what's expected as oil heads for The Other Side of middle-aged. Once the real trouble starts, controlling market-oscillations, such as we are now seeing (always a nagging worry..) will be the main rodeo-act.

I will return to the NPS stats site and see how far back the data go. If details are available for the 1973 Oil Embargo we might see something that is helpful with our present topic (the effect of fuel prices on Park visitation). However, that oil-crisis was precipitated suddenly, lasted only from October '73 to March '74, and was hurriedly patched-over.

Still, brief & relatively anomalous as it was, it was one of our premier crises of the modern era.

Ted, you'll find valleys in the data that correspond to World War II and the 1970s oil embargo.

the problem is probably mainly that strong demand is leaning on the production capacity

Demand currently plays only a minor part in the overall scheme of oil prices. More of a factor in rising oil prices was the weak dollar, in which oil is traded. The dollar is rebounding against other concurrences (whose economies are now also facing recession), and we're seeing a corresponding drop in the price of oil.

If only there were a direct correlation between pump price and barrel price, but alas, once Big Oil Brother knows the American Sucker will tolerate a given level of gouging, the overall scenario will remain much as it currently stands, with the consumer whining but paying, and oil execs wetting their collective pants in anticipation of the next Gulf Coast storm, insurgent attack or other such nonsense as a "legitimate reason" to adjust the structure of gasoline pricing. Example: this past April the cost of a barrel of oil was the exact same as it was at the end of August. The difference to the American marketplace? August gas prices averaged over 40 cents HIGHER in August, in the time period prior to the Gustav craze. In physics, what goes up must come down due to Newton's Law. It's a shame Sir Isaac couldn't make the oil execs understand some basic theories of science. The only "science" they understand is demonstrating a well-defined ability to manipulate the economic structure of the country. Suckers are we all for fostering this practice by allowing ourselves to be bent over the table each and every time the massah cries wolf.

And by the way Ted, the data you seek, even if available will prove to be worthless. We haven't hit the "gas line" stage in the current economy, which had a much more far-reaching impact on travel during the mid-70's than did the actual cost of the fuel. Just procuring was the issue back then, not the cost per gallon.

Frank;

You're right - currency valuations and their relationships are major drivers in the oil markets and elsewhere. Fuel prices can't be accounted for properly without factoring in the strength of the dollar.

Lone Hiker;

So true - it's 'new game time' when the pump-lines start running down the street, and the "NO GAS" signs start going up on the pumps. And with the wild cards in play, it's a standing hazard.

Good points, both. A complex situation ...

Getting back to Bob's orginal post, here in the Upper Midwest (which includes T.R. National Park) tourism patterns have been shifting in response to rising gas prices. It's not a simple drop in tourism. The tourism industry has been publicly saying that vistors to certain popular parts of northern Minnesota are increasing because Minnesotans are choosing to save money by traveling within their state rather than driving to, say, the Rockies. I've also heard informal reports that visitors to Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota appear to be driving their motorboats less within the Park, instead hanging out closer to their campsites. (The Park's campsites are accessible by boat only, and dispersed along the shorelines of the Park's lakes. Automobile driving is limited to the Park's approximately 10 miles of roads, and changes in internal use patterns show up more clearly in boat travel.)

One reason why the drop in visitation at the North unit of Theodore Roosevelt might be related in part to its distance from Medora is the possibility of similar changes in in-state tourism. North Dakota locals have told me that Medora is the favored vacation spot for people in their state. If North Dakotans are trying to reduce their driving because of fuel costs, they may be trying to spend more time in and near Medora, cutting out side trips. North Dakota is one of the states that is getting hit hardest by increased fuel prices, in terms of the percentage of income that its residents spend on gasoline, so it makes sense that they'd be looking for places to cut back.

The sad thing is that the North unit of T.R. is an incredible place to visit. People who only go to the south unit are really missing out.