National Park Attendance on the Decline : Recreation: Drop in visitors, which began two years ago, is bad news for businesses that cater to tourists.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Is America's love affair with its overcrowded national parks fading?

For the first time since the end of World War II, the number of people visiting national parks is heading down, in a decline that started two years ago.

That spells trouble for businesses that cater to park visitors.

Even in this desert park of 2,000 natural stone arches, where visitor numbers had jumped 51% since 1990, attendance may be down this year, said Park Supt. Noel Poe.

"We didn't believe it could continue forever. Maybe we're at that point," Poe said.

Neighboring Canyonlands, where growth had been even higher than Arches, also is in a decline.

But not every park is down.

Attendance at some parks that draw from major population centers is climbing, including Yosemite, up 9%, and Rocky Mountain near Denver, up 17% for the first five months of this year.

But, nationally, visitors to the park system's 332 reporting units, ranging from parks to battlefields, were down 2.2% through May and initial reports for June and July suggest further drops. Last year, visits were down to 273.1 million, down from the previous year's 274.7 million.

In 1947, the number was 25.5 million.

Many reasons are given why park system numbers are down, ranging from an uncertain world economy to the international attraction of all the World Cup soccer matches to overcrowding of the parks themselves.

"People are tired of going to overcrowded parks," said Rod Greenough of the Salt Lake City office of the National Parks and Conservation Assn.

But some businesses believe measures imposed to control crowds, such as reservation systems, have also discouraged visitors.

"It appears that in preparing for the overcrowding of past years, the Park Service may have actually done its job a little too well," said Brenda Tormo, president of the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

Suzanne Cook, an economist with the U.S. Travel Data Center in Washington, said domestic travel business data would suggest park visits should be up.

"The indicators that I have, like lodging data, are up 4.2% this year," she said.

Cook said the parks' decline also may be a sign of the changing tastes of baby boomers.

But don't expect this slight attendance decline to eliminate long waits for parking places and camping spots.

If it's a reprieve, it's not much of one, say Greenough and officials at several parks.

"I'd compare it to a prisoner of war getting a glass of water thrown in his face," said Ken Hornbeck, who assembles and analyzes visit numbers for the Park Service.

And it doesn't mean outdoor recreation is down on all the nation's public lands.

Recreation consumers just have more choices, including travel to millions of acres of less-crowded public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service. Neither agency keeps close tabs on visitor numbers.

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