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Park entrance fees, it seems from my very unofficial survey, are not what's behind the flattening of national park visits. If you took time to read the comments, there wasn't one individual who objected to the range of fees now being charged at the parks.
Which begs the question: Why is park visitation relatively flat?
There really doesn't appear to be any hard and fast reason. As Kath noted in a comment appended to the latest ARC post, visitation trends are all over the board. "Some parks in or close to cities had decreases. Some parks that require long drives had increases. Some had decreases," she noted after sifting through the Park Service's numbers.
At the same time, she was happy visitation is not rocketing upwards."Isn't it better for the parks and avid park visitors to not be so crowded?" wrote Kath.
Alan summed up the fears of several commentors when he wrote that, "with park entrance fees, it's my sense that they're being used not to bolster operating budgets that Congress cut, but as an excuse for Congress not funding the parks to the level they should be. In the longer term, they're just as likely to be precusors toward the privatization of some parks."
That is a fear quite a few folks have.

In regard to the ARC post I mentioned above, kudos to Sabattis for pointing out that ARC's reference to 63 million park visits per year was no doubt specific to actual "national parks" and not historic areas, battlefields, monuments and the like.
Just the same, that still means ARC wants to focus its various modes of recreation in places that, in my mind, are most susceptible to being impacted and impaired. As others have commented on this blog, national parks should be immune from the hazards of motorized recreation, be it in the form of snowmobiles, ATVs, or personal watercraft.
And frankly, I don't think park visitation is going to be rescued by more motorized recreation or by opening up the parks to geo-caching rallies or mountain bikers. While these all are valid forms of recreation, I would argue that they are not appropriate activities for national parks. There are countless other areas throughout America where these activities would be much more suitable and where their fans would be more comfortable.
As to what to make of the visitation trends, well, that's an issue that might not be as much of a problem as some think. Is there a fear that the Park Service will go out of business? Are Yellowstone's roughly 3 million annual visitors and Great Smoky Mountains' roughly 9 million not enough? If national parks were losing their luster, why is real estate rimming parks so expensive? Why are "luxury homes" being planned for the borders of Great Smoky Mountains?
I sense the only ones concerned about the visitation trends are those who make a buck off the parks. As I've noted previously, gateway communities are entitled to vibrant economies. But that doesn't mean the park system must be exploited to all ends.
While U.S. Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico plans to convene his House parks subcommittee once again on September 13th to discuss visitation in the parks, I don't think there's an overnight panacea waiting in the wings. Rather, in the case of "national parks," perhaps we as a society need to better appreciate nature and all it holds, and pass that appreciation on to the younger generations. We need to get off our couches and get out into the woods, the mountains and the high country. We need to break the electronic hypnotism that mesmerizes so many of today's youth.
If anything, Congress shouldn't be concerned with national park visitation. It should be concerned with underfunding the Park Service to the point where the agency can't properly maintain and operate these parks, seashores, battlefields and monuments.

Comments

Okay, I'll start with a little off the cuff punditry. Some hypostheses on why park visitation is relatively flat: 1. First of all, I don't think you can lump all parks together. There are undoubtedly different factors at work in parks in which the main activity is hiking versus historic sites like historic homes, battlefields, etc. 2. Given point #1, I'll talk about a park I 've visited at least once a year for the past 10 to 15 years: Yosemite. a. Visits to Yosemite are off from previous years, although as the typical visitor I haven't noticed it. b. I considered the high cost of Yosemite's accomodations. In just the last 6 years, the cost of staying at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, for example, has risen by $20. That's $90 for a tent-cabin which hasn't increased it's amenities one iota over those years. But they are still full up every night, so that can't be a reason. Accomodations near the park are high priced, but not more than the market will bear since it's hard to get a last minute room there also. There have been more motels built in Oakhurst which would tend to increase visitors to Yosemite. It could be the decrease is in dayvisitors, rather than in those who stay for several days. c. The aging of the population may be a reason, but with more retired people one would think that there would be more leisure travel and that there would be increases in visits to national parks. After all, much of the scenery can be viewed from the car or from vista points that require no exertion that might be difficult for older folks. d. I considered the growing obesity of the population. Again, many sights can be seen without any physical exertion that might be difficult or impossible for the obese. But most people want to do more on vacation that just look out of the windows of their car and the difficulty of hiking particularly in higher altitudes may be too much for overweight (or elderly) people, so they go elsewhere. e. Ultimately, this is my best guess. Yosemite has reached the limit of the number of people it can accomodate with the type of experience the Yosemite visitor wants. The national park visitor wants to experience some sense of wilderness, of being alone with nature and wildlife. Once the trails are packed, once you can't experience a view without tour buses belching fumes and more people, you no longer have the national park experience you came for. So you find an alternative. Maybe you go to the less crowded parks. My wealthier friends have discovered the eco-parks of places like Costa Rica. Bottom line: Yosemite has reached it's maximum capacity and visits will continue to flatline. More roads to currently road-inaccessible areas could be built. More accomodations in the park could be built, and operating on the priciple that "if you build it, they will come" visits would go up. But this is anathema to the central purpose of the national parks. They aren't to be purely pleasure parks but are to preserve wilderness and wildlife, in addition to giving the American public a place to experience it. I hope you post what the findings are of Rep. Pearce's hearings. Enough of my ramblings.
My post was evidently a few hours late to be included in your survey, but I definitely think that the total cost is getting a bit high in some cases. Particularly the more out-of-the-way parks with primitive facilities. Remember that my basis is for a visit by one or two people (an individual or a couple), not a family of four or more. By the time the entrance fee and camping fees are included, the cost for a two night stay is well over $50 for primitive conditions plus gas money to out-of-the-way parks. Certainly won't break the bank but considering these parks were supposed to be bought and paid for decades or centuries ago, it does seem to be escalating. Furthermore, the fees that are now being collected do not seem to result in major improvements or structural upgrades. Instead there is a decrease in maintenance for some parks and continued complaints that more money is required. Where is all the money going? One item that is a positive is that there is no charge for the online reservations system. I have excursions planned to more parks in the next few weeks and will report my experiences at a later date. Note that the CA State park system has a minimum charge of $7.50 just to be able to make an online reservation.
James is thinking in the right direction. Where is all the money going? The Park Service has a very large contract to deal with it's reservation system and the Parks pay a fee for each reservation and roll it into the price. The entry fees are no more for a family of four than for a single and camping fees are for a site not individually. $20 for a site in the shadows of El Capitan is still a bargain in anybody's book. These fees do go back to visitor services in the park...but first you have to pay for the environmental assessment and the envirenmental impact study, public scoping, compliance and legal fees (for the ever present lawsuit). Only then can we build an additional restroom so the visitor doesn't have to wait in line. Once built the fee use program doesn't fund maintenance and cleaning, these have to be added to the parks budget. Oh what a tangled web we weave.
I read one of your responders comments that maybe park visitation is down because we are fatter. This comment obviously came from someone who has never had a weight issue. Park visitation is not down because americans are larger. I am a large person and I visit the parks on a regular basis. Even if one can't climb to the top of Angels Landing one still receives great joy from the relaxation and walking exercise one gets from just being in the wild. I believe park visitation is down for several reasons the first being the last of us baby boomers children are now in their late teens and are working so there is less time for family weekends and vacations. It's just not the same when your kids are unable to go with you so we forgo going anywhere because will feel guilty because our kids are not with us. Secondly, gas prices have been terribly high. If you tent camp it's not such a drain on your finances. But if you tow a camper and your gas milage goes from 15 mpg to 8 mpg then you can see that your gas costs for a short trip can double quickly. Thirdly some of us are tired of so many people in the park. I go up to Zion and down to the Grand Caynon in the Winter just to avoid all of the people. I love going into the Narrows at Zion but in the summer you have to be there at the crack of dawn to enjoy the solitude after about 10 am the Narrows is full of people. It would not be so bad if there wasn't kids yelling things to hear their echos. There parents don't do anything to shut them up. You don't have a chance to see any wildlife because they have been scared away. I used to enjoy Red Rock BLM outside of Vegas but the number of young children who are not properly supervised is a nightmare. They are constantly throwing rocks and yelling and running around. When they do this they scare the rabbits, lizards, burrows ect.. Parental supervision is nill. When you are trying to enjoy the solitude of the wild you can't do it if peoples children are not well behaved. When my daughter was younger and I took her hiking and camping I taught her to be quiet so she could see the animals. She is now 18 and enjoys going out hiking in the early morning to avoid the noise and crush of people on the trails. I think it is the combination of all of these reasons why the parks are not increasing in visitation. I would like to see visitation go down to give the wildlife a chance to have a break from us. Thanks
In Canada we pay more than twice as much for National Parks for a lower quality of service (I feel). From our blog, "hike Canada or the USA?" http://besthike.com/blog/?p=152
I didn't mean to offend anyone with my comments. My husband is overweight and he can't hike the trails as easily as he did 20 years ago before he put on so many pounds. If we're offering up our best theories on why park visitation is down, I didn't think the undeniable fact that America is getting fatter should be left out of the equation because it's an uncomfortable truth. I suppose the best way to test the hypothesis would be to compare visitation numbers at national parks that don't require physical activity versus those that do. And this may just be one of many factors, not the only factor. And as I said, I do think that the parks have reached and overstretched in many cases the maximum number of visitors they can accomodate. Last Thanksgiving, I was trying to enter Grand Canyon National Park. There was such a long line at the south entrance station that I almost turned around and gave up. Then when in the park, all the lots at the vista points were jammed with dozens of tour buses belching diesel disgorging thousands of people. Not my kind of National Park. It may be a long time before I return.