Is there a need to promote places that "our woven into our American culture," that require room reservations to be made months, if not a year, ahead of schedule, and which not too long ago gained national exposure through a 12-hour Ken Burns mini-series?
When simply saying "Old Faithful," "Half Dome," or "Grand Canyon" for most instantly conjures iconic landscapes, should the federal government need to invest time on promoting the national parks?
It's a question that rises on occasion in the halls of Congress, where senators and representatives oftentimes wonder what can be done to lure more visitors to the National Park System. Back in 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Stevan Pearce, R-New Mexico, was so concerned about national park visitation that he actually created a "Park Visitation Working Group," was quoted in a Men's Journal article that the National Park Service wasn't particularly interested in visitation, and held some hearings into the visitation "problem."
While visitation to the National Park System hit its high-water mark in 1987, when 287.2 million visitors were counted, traffic did slump to 272.6 million in 2006, when Mr. Pearce's concern was piqued. Since then the annual tally worked its way back to 285.6 million in 2009, a rise attributed in part to the sour economy leading more folks to vacation closer to home, to three entrance-fee-free-weekends Interior Secretary Ken Salazar offered in the summer, and to the building interest surrounding Mr. Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea.
But no matter what year it is, it seems that if come August you visit Yellowstone National Park for a glimpse of Old Faithful, or stand on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, or venture into the Yosemite Valley to see both Half Dome and El Capitan, you'll wonder what all the clamor about park visitation is about.
And yet, late last year the economic interests behind the parks -- the National Park Hospitality Association -- formed the National Parks Promotion Council, and then less than two weeks ago U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee, and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. George LeMieux, R-Florida, held a hearing on America the Beautiful: Promoting Our National Parks as Travel Destinations.”
“Our National Parks are woven into American culture. They are on ‘must see’ lists for domestic and international travelers and are icons of America,” said Sen. Klobuchar. “But these parks are more than beautiful national resources. They are also important economic resources and increasing tourism at national parks will benefit Minnesota’s local economies and help create jobs.”
Another aspect of promoting the parks, as Sen. LeMieux pointed out, is to raise awareness of the educational value of the National Park System and build appreciation for preserving the environment. Too, in recent years there's been concern over both younger generations and new generations of immigrants not appreciating the parks. Without that appreciation, who will advocate for the parks once the Baby Boomers are gone?
There's no denying that some national parks are economic engines. That's evident in the gateway towns that have sprung up around some of the higher-profile parks, the Yosemites, Yellowstones, Sequoias, and Grand Canyons. And it's evident in the $750 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars the Obama administration funneled to the National Park Service.
Encouraging, promoting, and capturing this economic might can, though, be perilous for the parks. That's evident at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where the Park Service is caught in the middle of a rancorous debate between tourism and environmental interests; at Yellowstone, where the argument over recreational snowmobile use in the park has raged on for more than a decade, and; even Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where development surrounding the park threatens to turn it into a biological island.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, who welcomed the subcommittee hearing on national park tourism, agrees that when it comes to promoting the parks, not all parks need the same level of attention.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of our major national parks are over-used, and that the experience sometimes in the parks is lessened because of that," he said late last week. "Sometimes I’ve said that our major national parks are being loved to death because of the experience the visitor has and also the impact on the ecology of the park.
“So I think the task of the Park Service, No. 1, is to try to lessen that impact and try to do everything they can to make sure that the visitor experience is a better experience," said Sen. Udall, who no doubt sharpened his love for, and appreciation of, the national parks while being raised by his late father, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. "Now, take for example Yellowstone. Most of Yellowstone is not visited at all. This is a magnificent park, it’s a huge one. It’s one of the crown jewels of the park system. And there has to be a way where you can balance these values that I talked about.
“But there are many, many parks that don’t have the over-use situation. Smaller parks that could accommodate more people. And I think there’s a way that the Park Service and all of us that are working on this issue to publicize those parks and maybe spread some of the visitorship to some of these smaller parks.”
If any promotion mandate is handed the Park Service, (which has a tourism office but no budget or authority to formally advertise on behalf of the parks), should it be centered around the Yellowstones, Yosemites, and Grand Canyons of the system, or should lesser-known parks such as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Isle Royale National Park, or Capitol Reef National Park receive the attention? Or would it be more effective if any advertising revolved around off-season park visits or extolling the rich value in backcountry overnight treks (something that just 1.86 million of 2009's 285.6 million visitors made)?
Or, is this simply an unnecessary idea, in light of all the free press the national parks already receive?
Then, too, there's the issue of requiring the Park Service, an agency whose prime mandate under the National Park Service Organic Act is to preserve the parks and their resources "unimpaired" for future generations, to actively work to bring more visitors to parks that, in some cases, are straining to keep up with current traffic.
“There are a lot of contested issues like that with our very popular national parks, and these superintendents are trying to balance all those issues and yet, at the same time, stay committed to the Organic Act, stay committed to the mission of the Park Service, and make sure that they’re not harming the ecology of the particular park,” Sen. Udall said.
“I think we can do both, but I think we do need to be careful to not over-promote a park that’s being over-used, and we need to work very carefully with the superintendent and the Park Service director to make sure that we look at those situations, analyze them seriously, and come up with some solutions to the challenges that we face in the big ones.”
One of those superintendents searching for a solution is Mike Murray, who oversees Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The superintendent, who worked his way up through the ranks in parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglades, and Cape Cod, finds himself in the middle of a contentious argument between environmental groups and anglers who use off-road vehicles to reach their favorite fishing spots along the cape over how much of the cape should be open to ORV traffic.
“I think in recent decades both the Park Service and others have recognized the economic value of the parks. So I think finding the right balance between recognizing and appreciating that the park can be a draw to an area, somehow that has to be tied to appropriate and well-managed use so that it’s just not overrunning the parks with unmanageable use, particularly in sensitive resource areas," Superintendent Murray said.
“So we know, and certainly we’re hearing in our public comments loud and clear, that Cape Hatteras is important to the local economy, which is a tourism economy. We don’t have any industries other than small commercial fishing industry and recreational fishing, but that is tied to being able to access waters to fish. And we have good cultural sites, good state and local park type partners, and venues, so it’s a diverse area for an affordable visit.
“So somehow, it’s one of those issues where parks are great opportunities, but we got to remember the purpose of the parks as stated in the Organic Act. You know, provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and such means that will leave them unimpaired," he pointed out. "And there’s numerous lawsuits and case law and philosophical statements from great conservation leaders over the years that the rights of future generations, when it comes to parks, the rights of future generations are more important than the immediate desires of the present. Frederick Law Olmstead said that in 1865 regarding Yosemite, and that’s never more true than it is today."