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Really Getting Away From It All: The Loneliest National Parks


Alaska's Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve counts as two separate units of the National Park System, but still counted only a grand total of 62 recreational visitors in 2010. NPS photo.

The most popular national parks get visitors galore. But what about the other end of the attendance spectrum, the end that is anchored by the system's least-visited parks? From the attendance point of view, you might say that these are lonely parks dwelling in the deep shadows cast by their more celebrated brethren. Let's shed some light on them.

The National Park Service's attendance data for 2010 reveal that 69 National Park System units attracted a million or more visitors.  After allowing for some double counting (the Park Service has a very quirky way of counting NPS units), it remains that more than 60 NPS units cracked the million-visitor threshold last year.

Against this background, it's hard to believe that each of 23 NPS units -- nearly 6 percent of the National Park System's 394 units -- attracted fewer than 10,000 visitors last year. The total attendance of this bottom tier was 77,825.  That's less than 0.3 percent of last year's system-wide visitation of 281.3 million, or about the number of people who visited Death Valley National Park during the month of February last year.

Here is the roster of the 2010 cellar-dwellers (2010 attendance in parentheses):

* Hamilton Grange National Memorial  (0)

* Aniakchak National Monument & Aniakchak National Preserve (62)

* Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve (204)

* Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial  (984)

* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (1,103)

* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (2,445)

* Cape Krusenstern National Monument  (2,521)

* Bering Land Bridge National Preserve  (2,642)

* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial  (2,888)

* National Park of American Samoa   (3,006)

* Kobuk Valley National Park  (3,164)

* Noatak National Preserve  (3,257)

* Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site  (3,285)

* Nicodemus National Historic Site (3,448)

* Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site  (4,063)

* Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument  (4,350)

* Thomas Stone National Historic Site  (6,004)

* Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve  (6,211)

* First Ladies National Historic Site (8,766)

* Lake Clark National Park & Preserve  (9,931)

* Fort Bowie National Historic Site (9,491)

Attendance data are aggregated for Aniakchak National Monument  and Aniakchak National Preserve, even though the National Park Service counts them as two separate units of the National Park System. The same is true for Lake Clark National Park and Lake Clark National Preserve.

Although a strong geographical bias is apparent (two-thirds of these units are west of the Mississippi River, fully one-third are in Alaska, and one is in the South Pacific), the loneliest parks are actually quite a mixed bag.  There's room here for legitimate differences of interpretation, but I can see two "special case" units, one group of remote units, and one group of low-interest urban units.

The first special case is Hamilton Grange National Memorial in New York City.  The visitation reported for Hamilton Grange shows zero recreational visits for the years 1980-1982, 1993-1997, 2007, and 2010.   However, this NPS unit attracted 40,000 annual visitors as recently as 2000 and counted 15,287 visitors in 2005.  The wildly fluctuating numbers reflect periodic closings, the most recent of which was made necessary when the historic building that is this park's reason for being was closed for a time and then  moved to a new site.  Hamilton Grange is scheduled to reopen at its new location in Harlem this year, and visitation can be expected to return to normal levels in due course. 

The second special case is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, a recently-established park located on US Navy property near Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area. The Port Chicago site, a former Affiliated Area, was redesignated as a National Memorial under National Park Service administration and established in 2009 as America's 392nd national park. The Navy severely restricts public access, making it available only by prior arrangement well in advance.

At least 14 of the reporting units in the bottom tier are in relatively remote locations, being hard to get to or situated outside the day-tripping zones of large population centers. The remote parks are:

* All seven of the Alaska units on the list (none of which has road access)

* National Park of American Samoa

* Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve (Virgin Islands)

* Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River  (Big Bend National Park, Texas; no federal facilities)

* Fort Bowie National Historic Site  (Chihuahuan Desert, southeastern Arizona)

* Nicodemus National Historic Site   (Great Plains, northwestern Kansas)

* Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site   (Great Plains, east-central Colorado)

* Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument  (Great Plains, Texas panhandle)
Five NPS units on the "lonely list" are cultural-historical sites with central city, suburban, or day-tripper locations in major urban regions. Since they enjoy favorable market locations, their lackluster attendance is apparently due to low public interest. This group includes:

* Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial  (Philadelphia, PA; it is the smallest NPS unit)

* First Ladies National Historic Site  (Canton, OH, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

* Thomas Stone National Historic Site  (Port Tobacco, MD, near Washington, DC)

* Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (Brookline, MA, a Boston suburb)

* Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site (Danville, CA, a San Francisco/Oakland suburb)
Qualifying comments are in order for the latter two parks.  Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site is open to the public by reservation only (except for certain "No Reservation Saturdays"), and  visitors are shuttled to the site for guided tours.  Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site was closed during part of 2010 due to major preservation project and is not scheduled to reopen until sometime in 2011.  Attendance has exceeded 10,000 in only one year (2001) since the park was established in 1979.

The purpose of this report is not to criticize.  Visitation is not the sole criterion for measuring the worth of a national park, nor even a necessarily important one. But it is something that matters (else why keep track of it at all?), and strikingly low annual visitation can't help but draw attention.

Of course, low visitation can signal problems.  At the very least, National Park Service officials need to ask: Is strikingly low visitation acceptable at [this particular NPS unit]?  If it is not, is corrective action in order?

Attendance trends for the low-visitation NPS units, something we have considered only in passing here, also merit attention.  Downward-trending numbers may be cause for concern if they persist. At First Ladies National Historic Site, for example, attendance declined 16 percent  last year and is down nearly 22 percent since 2006.  Of course, some lonely parks have stable or improving numbers.  At Frederick  Law Olmsted, for example, visitation has rebounded sharply from lows reached in the mid-2000s.

If you'd like to explore the park visitation data more deeply, you'll find the data you need at this NPS Reports site.  Remember to be careful when messing around with the visitation statistics for the loneliest parks, since small numerical changes can yield big percentage changes and impacts that may be much more apparent than real. Consider, for instance, the case of Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve, where 2010 attendance was up 443 percent for the year and exceeded the combined total for the three prior years. That looks mighty impressive until you consider that there were just 62 recreational visits in 2010, and a grand total of 50 for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Technically, only one of the 58 National Park-designated units -- Kobuk Valley National Park (3,164) -- reported fewer than 10,000 recreational visitors last year. However, it's likely that visitation at Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park also fell short of the 10,000 mark. The National Park Service counts Gates of the Arctic National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve as two separate NPS units, but combines them for many reporting purposes, including visitation. Last year's reported visitation for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve was 10,840.  For an explanation of the methods the Park Service uses to count visitors at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, read this document.

Also, it must be remembered that head counting in the parks is not an exact science. Few totals are based on actual counting; most involve mathematical calculations that can vary from season to season, and some rely on mechanical vehicle counters that break down from time to time. As a result, attendance figures are somewhat soft measuring sticks.

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Hamilton Grange National Memorial was really lonely with 0 visitors!  Turns out it was closed for relocation in 2010 . . .

Now, let's see why [color=#0000ff]Aniakchak National Monument & Aniakchak National Preserve[/color] was the next loneliest spot on the NPS map.

From its web page:
 "Given its remote location and notoriously bad weather"
 "A vibrant reminder of Alaska's location in the volcanically active 'Ring of Fire'"
 "Aniakchak is Bear Country!"

No wonder it received only 62 visitors last year!  ;-)

A serious comment, after pondering these of yours, Bob:

The purpose of this report is not to criticize. Visitation is not the sole criterion for measuring the worth of a national park, nor even a necessarily important one. But it is something that matters (else why keep track of it at all?), and strikingly low annual visitation can't help but draw attention.
Of course, low visitation can signal problems. At the very least, National Park Service officials need to ask: Is strikingly low visitation acceptable at [this particular NPS unit]? If it is not, is corrective action in order?

 If by "corrective action" you mean "closing," let me say this:  I don't mind my tax dollars going to support Hamilton Grange or Aniakchak any more than those going to support Yellowstone or Yosemite.  I am in favor of preserving all the nature and heritage that we can in this great land of ours.  I'd rather my money go to these purposes than to Tomahawk missiles landing in Gaddafi's compound.

Of course, I am on the extreme in this regard.  At the other extreme are those who would close all national parks, monuments, and historical parks as a waste of taxpayer dollars.  And, I might add, as impediments to business profits.

I seem to remember from a while back a National Parks Traveler piece on certain sites that were closed over the years due to lack of visitors and public interest.  The resources of the NPS are limited and some unfortunate choices must be made at times.  I trust the NPS to make them.

Good comments, Bruce.

As someone who generally perceives little waste in the Park Service overall, I do have to say that some units are Congressional attempts at pork barrel, bringing a handful of jobs and a small amount of federal funding to Rep. Whozyface's impoverished rural district or Sen. Whatzizname's mayoral buddy. In looking at the NPS imperatives, including protection of wilderness areas, I'd question whether all of these urban parks are necessary. They might be best turned over to the relevant municipalities or foundations.

In an earlier post this week, you asked for "cultural parks that don't get enough love" (/2011/03/summer-special-ten-cultural-historical-parks-dont-get-enough-love7689) and the Olmstead site was the first that came to my mind!

Excellent comment AnonymousD.

I think I remember questions like that being asked many times when some areas were proposed for establishment.  American Samoa is one of those.  It was alleged that establishment of that unit was purely an attempt to boost tourism to an impoverished place that probably shouldn't even be part of the United States in any way.

The article explains the reason for low attendance at Port Chicago.

But there are other places, like Ft. Bowie, where part of the very attraction of the place is the fact they are so remote.  (Yet, I would argue that Ft. Bowie isn't really remote.  Rather it's just kind of inconvenient.)  At FOBO, visitors must walk a mile and a half to reach the visitor center.  A fairly easy hike, but maybe something people just choose to avoid even though the experience of hiking in there through country little changed since the days of Geronimo is an important part of helping us understand the history and hardships of those people who experienced life in that place.  (For those who have special access needs, it is possible to drive to the VC.)

Attendance at a park certainly should not be main criteria in considering it for some other possibilities such as abolishment.  Instead, if it comes to that, the most important should be going back to look carefully at WHY it became a park area in the first place.

I think there can be a certain amount of "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it" in some of this. The number of people who can or chose to visit someplace has no bearing necessarily on the inherent value of preserving that place.

I've seen some of the extremes, currently living at a park in Alaska with just under a million visitors annually for the past decade or so, and having also spent an extended vacation a year ago at National Park of American Samoa, which is on the 'remote' list. Neither is "better" than the other, and both have scenic and historical value. Others that I have visited from small [Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts, Klondike in Seattle] to large [Mt Rainier, Yellowstone] are all worthy of the NPS and deserving of support and visitation.

My opinion is that all of this can be interesting, but not a call for alarm or action.

Sorry about the ambiguity, Bruce, but I'm afraid it comes with the territory. I've used  "corrective action" here in the conventional sense of the term. That is, a corrective action is  an action that eliminates the cause of a problem. In the case at hand, if low attendance or declining attendance were deemed a significant problem at a particular national park, it would make sense to identify and weigh all of the potential corrective actions -- the goal being to increase attendance or maintain it at an acceptable level.

It's exceedingly unlikely that poor attendance could ever serve as the sole justification for  delisting a national park. That said, it could certainly open the matter to discussion.   


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