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The tradition of camping in the national parks is seeing a rapid decline, according to a report in the Denver Post.
Overnight stays in national parks fell 20%, to 13.8 million, between 1995 and 2005, and are down another 4.3% for the first eight months of 2006.
Among the declines in the 10-year period, tent camping dropped 23%, backcountry camping fell 24% and RV camping was down 31%.
“Camping is one of those areas that is a concern to us,” said Butch Street, a statistician for the National Park Service who compiles the figures each year. “That is definitely going down.
“Let’s face it: It’s hard to protect the parks if no one is interested in them.”
Park officials and analysts say the decline may be tied to the slumping economy, higher gas prices, the competition for people’s time and the country’s changing demographics.
Even the number of visits to the “gem parks” of the intermountain region – including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain – dropped between 2% and 15% in 10 years.
The prime summer months are still busy, and campground reservations at most parks are needed well in advance, but there has been a drop in the “shoulder months,” officials said.
The Post reported that while attendance has been flat at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), with about 3 million visitors annually, officials say they aren’t worried.
With RMNP drawing on the large Front Range population, a Columbus Day weekend in mid-October can be as busy as the Fourth of July, said Kyle Patterson, park spokeswoman.
“Because of colors and the elk bugling, people are trying to hang on to fall,” she said.
Still, the park system’s overall decline in visits concerns officials in Washington, D.C., said Jim Gramann, professor at Texas A&M University and visiting social scientist for the park service.
“General leisure-travel patterns have changed,” Gramann said. “In the old days, the iconic vacation was loading up the car and going to a national park.
“The long weekend is replacing the two-week time off,” he said. “That means fewer overnight stays in the national parks.”
Population changes also may have an impact.
“Look at what is fueling growth of the U.S. population,” Gramann said. “It’s increases in populations of people that have not been traditional park-goers.”
Census projections show that by 2050, ethnic minority groups will compose more than 47% of the U.S. population.
“Minority populations are traditionally underserved by the parks,” Gramann said.
Outgoing Park Service Director Fran Mainella told Congress in 2005 that one of her top goals has been making the agency relevant in the 21st century by reaching out to more youths and minorities.
Park programs, for example, are being geared to include more information about ethnic minorities’ roles in the parks’ history, Gramann said.
Another troubling trend, park officials say, is the decline in youth visits to the parks.
A Nature Conservancy study released in June showed the drop in national park visitation was connected to the rise in the use of video games, DVDs and other electronic media.
Megan Davis, spokeswoman for the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association, said the outdoor market is changing but remains strong.
People are seeking outdoor activities that take less time, are easy to learn and can be done close to home, Davis said.