National Parks Versus Videogames: Who Wins?

Back in March I posted about a must-read book for parents who love the out-of-doors, Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it the author, Richard Louv, presents extremely compelling evidence that video games, computer games, and urban sprawl are combining to turn today's younger generations away from nature.
Well, today I'm going to tell you about a new study that suggests there's a link between the decline in national park visitation and the rise in video games, surfing the Internet, video rentals, and the cost of gasoline.
Oliver Pergams, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cautions that his research doesn't directly blame those distractions with the decline in park visitation. But he comes pretty close.
"This is no smoking gun," says Pergams. "We're showing statistically that the rise in use of these various types of media, as well as oil prices, is so highly correlated with the decline in national park visits that there is likely to be some association."

According to a release from the college, Pergams --who co-authored the report with Patricia Zaradic, a conservation biologist with the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pennsylvania -- considered more than two dozen variables in sifting through his data. In the end, he determined that "video games, home movie rentals, going out to movies, Internet use, and rising fuel prices explained almost 98 percent of the decline," the release states.
"It's fairly stunning," adds Pergams, who just the same cautions that correlation is not the same as causation.
Among the variables he ruled out were family income, age, the rise in foreign travel, or crowding in the parks. None correlated as strongly as home entertainment and fuel prices.
"My concern is that young people are simply not going outdoors or to natural areas, but are instead playing video games, going on the Internet or watching movies," Pergams said. "My longer-term concern is that I don't see how this trend, if it is in fact true, could be good for conservation efforts. But if the trends are correct, perhaps public awareness will lead to some solutions."
Pretty strong stuff, don't you think?
The National Park Service already realizes travelers are concerned about gas prices and how much it will cost them to travel to a park of their choice. You can even visit one of the NPS's web sites to calculate how much gas will cost you to make the journey.
But can the agency compete with video games, the Internet and home movies? It can, but perhaps a more important twist to that question is whether the agency needs to compete "head on" with those distractions.
There are some who believe the NPS needs to bring the park system into the cyberspace age by transmitting broadcasts teens can pick up on their MP3 players and by developing hand-held "pocket rangers" that will guide younger generations to a park's various attractions.
I would argue that national parks already have enough "natural" attractions that would entice the younger generations -- if they knew about them. The key is bringing the two together, and in large part that's the responsibility of parents and mentors, folks who love the out-of-doors in general and the national parks specifically.
My youngest son, a soon-to-be 17-year-old, is definitely hard-wired into the electronic age. A few weeks ago, though, we took him to Arches National Park for a canyoneering trek, something we had introduced him to nearly eight years ago. Once he heard where we were going and what we would be doing, he didn't complain and even looked forward to the adventure, even though he was saddled with a pretty good head cold.
As we worked our way through the Fiery Furnace, you couldn't wipe the smile off his face. And there wasn't an electronic gizmo in reach.
Where does the NPS figure into this equation? By helping get the word out about the wonders it oversees. Why is it that the military can advertise nationally on TV and radio and the Postal Service can market its snail-mail wonders, yet the Interior Department does not so visibly or actively promote a climb up the Grand Teton, a bucking ride through the Grand Canyon, or crawling on your belly through Mammoth Cave?
More than one gateway community has lamented the Park Service's lack of resources to help promote the parks, and congressional leaders have staged hearings to bemoan park visitation trends. Sadly, those hearings gave the motorized recreation community a soapbox to argue the parks need to fling open their gates to more snowmobiles, more personal watercraft, and perhaps even ATVs.
That's not what needs to be done, in my opinion, to boost visitation or to reconnect today's youth with nature and the national parks.
If you read my entire post on Mr. Louv's book, then you read about the Outdoor Industry Association's survey on what today's generations are seeking when they turn to recreation. While Baby Boomers are easy sells on national parks, those who comprise the "Millennial" generation, those born roughly between 1978 and 2003, get their kicks from speed and adrenalin-infusing sports, sports that typically can be found near to their homes.
It's not that they can't get that rush from climbing the Grand, rafting the Colorado, or crawling through Mammoth Cave. It's just that they either don't know about those possibilities or don't live close enough to turn them into realities.
Now, there doesn't seem to be much we can go about gasoline prices, but one solution to the concern over visitation trends and "nature-deficit disorder" is to spread the word about the parks and the adrenalin kicks you can find in them.
The National Park Conservation Association will contribute to that effort later this month with a campaign intended to spread the word about the financial woes afflicting the national park system. You can help by taking your kids to a national park.