If trends hold, this weekend should be a busy one in the National Park System. Or maybe it won't be. For while it is the last entrance-fee-free weekend in the parks this summer, and the first two seemed to bring out more visitors than normal, there is no apparent hard-and-fast trend tied to these weekends.
Part of the problem in discerning a trend, of course, is that there are a number of variables at play when it comes to deciding whether to visit a park: gas prices, the overall economy, good weather, bad weather, etc., etc., etc. Whether parks charge visitors to enter their landscapes is just one more wild card.
Here's what the Park Service had to say after reviewing visitation trends from a select, and small, group of park system units from the first fee-free weekend back in June:
Thirty-nine parks reported car or visitor counts. Of those parks, 22 (56%) reported that the counts on the free weekend were higher than the weekends before and after. Five (13%) parks reported counts lower on the free weekend compared to the weekends before and after. Twelve (31%) reported the free weekend was higher than only one of the weekends before or after. For parks that reported an overall increase in the counts the average increase was about 24%. For those parks with a decrease the average was about 20%.
In comparisons to only the weekend before or weekend after, 30 (77%) reported an increase in the number of car/visitors over the weekend before the fee free weekend. 25 (67%) reported that the fee free weekend had car/visitor counts higher than the weekend after.
The bottom line, according to the Park Service analysis, is that there was no obvious trend.
"... Castillo De San Marcos, Walnut Canyon, Tumacacori, Saguaro, and Colonial ... all had counts that were higher on the fee free weekend than the weekends both before and after. These five parks had the greatest percentage gain of the parks that experienced increased counts on the free weekend," the agency's review shows. "Harpers Ferry, Assateague Island, Vicksburg, Capulin Volcano and Olympic ... all showed counts that were lower on the free weekend than the weekends before and after. Death Valley, Glacier, El Morro, Crater Lake, and Joshua Tree ... had one weekend with higher counts and one weekend with lower counts opposed to the free weekend.
"... Glacier seems to show the effect of normal seasonal increases. Joshua Tree shows just the opposite, a decrease that may be linked to increasing temperatures," the review notes. "As summer temperatures increase, less people go to the desert and more to the mountain parks. It is hard to identify what impact, if any, the fee weekends had. Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, and Olympic all showed counts that were lower on the free weekend than the weekends before and after. There are many reasons that the counts could have decreased on those weekends."
Perhaps, the agency said, after analyzing visitation from the fee-free weekends in July and August it will be easier to understand cause-and-effect of visitation trends. For now, though, the waiving of fees probably has little overall effect on national park visitation, the agency concluded.
"Service-wide visitation statistics for the month of June and year to date (January-June) are up. However, it is doubtful the fee free weekend had a significant direct effect on the YTD or monthly service-wide visitation numbers. Visitation to parks that charge entrance fees makes up less than 35% of total visitation," noted the agency. "The free weekends may have indirectly played a role in increasing visitation through increased publicity for the NPS. Because of the larger overall trends, so few free days relative to 'paid' days, and the low percent of visits that happen at fee parks, it would be nearly impossible to see a service-wide visitation change directly related to a free weekend. Further, visitation at many state park systems, private campgrounds and other outdoor-based activities is increasing this year. Findings from the non-profit Outdoor Foundation note that there have been 'sizable increases in nearly every nature-based activity.' The service-wide increase is more likely due the American public’s return to nature based recreational pursuits, the current economy and other factors."
Still, the Park Service noted that it gained quite a bit of publicity for the National Park System as a result of the media attention the fee-free weekends have garnered.
"While visitation trends are hard to quantify, the amount of exposure and media around the free fee weekends was a tremendous benefit to the National Park Service," it said. "The extensive publicity on the Internet may have introduced the parks to a new younger group of visitors. The publicity and good will generated by the fee-free weekends reminded the public of the magnificent heritage that the National Park System preserves. The publicity reminded people that national parks offer an affordable vacation option even with an entrance fee."
Whatever is going on, the free weekends are costing the Park Service a relatively good chunk of change.
"Based on park revenue information for June, July and August of 2008, the current estimate of forgone revenue for the fee free weekends is approximately $750,000 to $1,000,000 per day or approximately $4,500,000 to $6,000,000 for the 6 days," the agency said.