As the National Park Service begins planning for its 100th birthday in 2016, the venerable agency has reason to wonder who will show up.
The Los Angeles Times reported that by the service’s own reckoning, visits to national parks have been on a downward slide for 10 years. Overnight stays fell 20% between 1995 and 2005, and tent camping and backcountry camping each decreased nearly 24% during the same period.
Visits are down at almost all national parks, even at Yosemite, notorious for summertime crowds and traffic jams. Meanwhile, most of the 390 properties in the park system are begging for business.
Typically, families with children recede from the parks in the fall. Now, the retirees who traditionally take their place in the fall and winter are choosing to go elsewhere. Last year, 568,000 vacationers went to Yosemite in July, nearly 20% fewer than in the same month in 1995. In January, there were 94,000 visitors, about 30% fewer than in January 1995.
Agency officials admit that national parks are doing a poor job attracting two large constituencies — young people and minorities — causing concerns about the parks’ continued appeal to a changing population.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a study commissioned by the park service and released in 2003 found that only 13% of the African-Americans interviewed had visited a park in the previous two years.
For more than a year, the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has been asking the park service to explain how it intends to attract more minorities to parks.
“Let me assure you that the leadership of the service is talking about this and spending a fair amount of time trying to understand the trends,” said Jon Jarvis, director of the park service’s Pacific West region. “You don’t have to have statistics and surveys to recognize that the visitors we are seeing do not reflect the diversity of the United States.”
Meanwhile, the parks’ most loyal visitors over the past several decades are vacationing elsewhere. Baby Boomers are changing the way they play. Some of the more adventurous have embraced mountain biking and similar sports that are not allowed in many national parks. But as they age, most Boomers are less interested in pitching tents and sleeping on the ground.
“I do believe that there is a significant trend, ‘Done before dinner,’ ” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association. “Baby Boomers want hard adventure by day and soft adventure by night. They want to paddle and rock-climb and also have their Cabernet and almond-crusted salmon with asparagus. And a nice bed.”
Many young families, too, are spurning the parks. According to Emilyn Sheffield, a social scientist at California State University, Chico, on loan to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, children have more say in family vacation destinations than ever before and, if they must be outdoors, they prefer theme parks.
A Nature Conservancy study funded by the National Science Foundation and released last July concluded the drop in national park visits was connected to the popularity of video games, hand-held devices, the Internet and other electronic media.
Some parks are using technology to draw teenagers in. Officials at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are experimenting with a Pocket Ranger game that simulates activities available in the park. The game can be downloaded from a website to iPods and other devices and continued in the park as a kind of scavenger hunt.
“We don’t know if it’s going to work,” said Ranger Charles Taylor. “But it’s a stab at making things more relevant.”
But for many blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics, the parks remain remote places they don’t want to visit. In 2000, the park service commissioned a comprehensive survey of attitudes toward parks. While 34% told interviewers they were too busy to visit parks, others reported that they did not feel welcome or safe there.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the park service’s forecast for next year predicts another attendance drop across the board.
Some members of Congress have offered solutions they say would put parks more in step with what Americans want, including more commercialized activities and businesses. With the backing of industry, some politicians have called for opening more parks to motorized recreation.
Critics contend that if park service officials become slaves to recreational fashion, national parks would roar with the sound of personal watercraft, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, and cell phone towers would rise among redwoods and touch-screen computers would dot wilderness trails.