As the National Park Service begins planning for its 100th birthday in 2016, the venerable agency has reason to wonder who will show up.
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.
“Most days, we’d be delighted to see 10 people,” said Craig Dorman, superintendent at Lava Beds National Monument, a seldom-visited site near the California-Oregon border that is even emptier these days. “It was pretty crowded around here during the Modoc War,” he said, referring to the 1872 Modoc Indian uprising. “But there probably haven’t been that many people here since.”
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, about 569,000 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.
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 last 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 Assn. “Baby Boomers want hard adventure by day and soft adventure by night. They want to paddle and rock-climb and also 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 Cal State 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.
But, even if children vote to visit a park, Sheffield said, many families spend no more than three hours traveling to vacation destinations, meaning that parks far from urban areas are getting a pass. In contrast, urban parks, including the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are among the most heavily used parks in the country.
A Nature Conservancy study funded by the National Science Foundation and released last July found a correlation between the drop in national park visits and the increasing popularity of at-home entertainment, including video games and the Internet.
Author Richard Louv writes of a “nature deficit disorder” and suggests parental fears about kidnapping and crime are keeping children off neighborhood streets and out of parks.
“We’re talking about a generation that’s being raised under virtual house arrest,” said Louv, whose 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” is being used as a study guide at some national parks.
“We scare them to death with signs and pamphlets warning them about bears, snakes, spiders, poison oak, drowning, driving on ice and in snow and all the other disclaimers we provide,” said Alexandra Picavet, the spokeswoman at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “Small wonder they are terrified.”
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.”
To Ellen Sachtjen, a seventh-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, parks can be an oasis of calm for children frazzled by city living. Sachtjen leads the school’s Sequoia for Youth group, a park-sponsored program that takes children into Sequoia National Park, where they overcome their fear of nature and leave behind their fear of the street violence.
“At first, no one wanted to go,” she said. “Now, it’s encultured in the school. They go on a night hike, where they experience the night without the sirens and boom boxes and police presence. Those are life-changing experiences for them. I bring them back and the kids say they want to be rangers.”
But for many African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos, 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.
One example of inadvertent exclusion was at Kings Canyon, where rangers began to notice in recent years that Latino families from the Central Valley visiting for the day complained they could not find enough space at family picnic sites.
The park service had assumed that a family would be able to fit at one picnic table that seated about six people. But the extended Latino families visiting Kings Canyon often numbered 15 to 20 people, a size the park defined as a “group” requiring a permit.
The park adjusted by enlarging the size of some picnic areas, placing tables closer together and doing the same thing at some campgrounds. Kings Canyon now has the only fully bilingual visitor center in the National Park Service.
Cultural insensitivity might be less of an issue if there were more minorities employed in parks. J.T. Reynolds, the superintendent of Death Valley National Park and an African American, said recruiting more diversity in the ranger ranks has been a long-standing but largely failed effort by the park service. Eighty percent of full-time park employees are white, despite minority recruitment efforts.
Wallace Stegner, the late author and essayist on the American West, once called the national park system “the best idea we ever had.”
Most Americans seem to believe that it is, at least, a very good idea. Park service employees annually receive the highest favorable ratings of all federal employees. In public opinion polls, including a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, respondents have said they were in favor of expanding the national park system and affording it more protection.
Support for parks can also be measured by enthusiastic volunteer efforts. The Sierra Club and other groups continue to organize park cleanup days, and senior citizens and retirees in large numbers donate their time as campground hosts or visitor center docents.
According to the park service, volunteers donated more than 5 million hours to the parks last year, saving the agency more than $90 million.
But despite that goodwill, the tally of visitors paints a worrisome picture. Although a few parks are crowded in summer months, many others are empty year-round. The park service’s forecast for next year predicts another 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.
James Gramann, a social scientist at Texas A&M; University and visiting chief social scientist for the park service, cautioned, “We can’t be driven simply by changes in public tastes, because we also have responsibilities to resources that we are mandated to protect.”
Critics contend that if park service officials become slaves to recreational fashion, national parks would roar with the sound of jet skis, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, and cellphone towers would rise among redwoods and touch-screen computers would dot wilderness trails.
“When you put technical contrivances in, it replaces nature, and what sets the parks apart is their authenticity,” said Bill Tweed, former chief resource ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
“The next generation will challenge the national parks. They might ask, ‘Why do we need parks when we can simulate them?’ In a rush to make parks relevant, we will end up destroying what makes them unique.”
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Fewer national park visitors
Visits to national parks have been declining for several years, and officials at the National Park Service are trying to come up with strategies to woo people back.
Visitors to selected parks, 1995-2005 (in millions)
*--* Sequoia Yellowstone Yosemite Death Valley 1995 0.84 3.13 3.96 1.11 2005 1.00 2.84 3.30 0.80 Percent change +19% -9% -17% -28%
Minorities and the national parks
Some findings from a 2000 survey of American adults:
X Sequoia Yellowstone Yosemite Death Valley
1995 0.84 3.13 3.96 1.11
2005 1.00 2.84 3.30 0.80
Percent change +19%-9%-17%-28%
18% of African Americans said parks were uncomfortable places to be.
24% of Latinos said parks were not safe.
74% of Latinos said they don’t visit parks because they are too expensive.
75% of African Americans said they don’t visit parks because they don’t know much about them.
Source: National Park Service