Interesting Take On Park Visitation Trend

Over at the New West Network, Bill Schneider has an interesting take on why national park visitation has been declining. In a nutshell, he pegs the decline to the slow, but steady, increase in fees we're confronted with when we visit a national park.
He poses an interesting argument, but there's one substantial loose thread that needs to be tightened for his theory that "people, particularly backcountry enthusiasts ... shy away from the national parks in favor of nearby wildlands for hiking and other outdoor activities to avoid fees and regulation"
to be nearly ironclad:
How have visits on other public lands fared over the same time period, which Bill begins back in 1996 when the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program debuted?
Way back in April I took a look at that question. What I found was that visitation to U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands yo-yo just as much, if not more, than national park visitation.
Here's what I wrote back then:

"Visitation to U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands has gone from 58.9 million in 1996 to 62.1 million in 1999 before plummeting to 51.5 million in 2001. Since then it's crept upwards a bit, to 54 million in 2004. Over on U.S. Forest Service lands, visitation was roughly 209 million in 2000, 214 million in 2001, and 204.8 million in 2004."

Do those stats toss a bucket of cold water on Bill's argument? Not really. In fact, they shed light on visitation trends to all public lands. After all, let's not forget that those other public land-management agencies also are increasing fees for treading on their landscapes.
But I think the fact that visitation has been yo-yoing across the public landscape indicates that something in addition to fee increases is contributing to the ups and the downs. Personal economics certainly could be a factor, and let's not forget that international visitation has been down since 9-11.
Just the same, the emphasis by Washington to force individual national parks to assume more and more of the financial burden when it comes to meeting their needs is, in my mind, a terrible mistake, one that certainly will not benefit the parks for today's, or tomorrow's, visitors.
If there's any good to come of it, perhaps Bill hits on it in his post:

"Interestingly--and inadvertently, it seems--the NPS might be doing exactly the right thing. I prefer the agency be honest about it and say fees contribute heavily to declining visitation, but they could follow that admission with, “but we’re doing it on purpose because it’s in line with our mission to preserve wild nature.'"

All that said, I wonder what we'd be hearing if national park visitation were skyrocketing, cramming all parks -- not just the Yellowstones, Yosemites and Grand Canyons -- with millions of visitors every year, so many that the parks and their resources were being pounded into the ground?
Would the gateway communities be cheering? Would advocacy groups be decrying the rampant growth and its impacts and demand congressional hearings to explore the problem and search for solutions?
When it comes to national park visitation and gateway communities, I think we need to focus less on "economic development" in terms of those capitalizing on the parks, and more on "economic sustainability." We need to find that middle ground where the gateway communities, and everyone else who makes a living off the parks, can do so, without the need to over-run the parks with more and more visitors and related impacts.
And if we succeed in doing that, no one will gnash their teeth when visitation ebbs and flows, much as it has for quite some time.

Comments

Just to throw-in additional data points, I interviewed the Ranger for the Mount Whitney District of the Inyo N.F. a couple of months ago. She had these comments on backcountry visitation in her district... STEVE: [00:54] Let's talk about some numbers here. What kind of visitation do you get in the Lone Pine/Whitney Corridor? MARGARET WOOD: [01:04] Well, from the permit use, we know we get about 15,000 people up that trail. The heaviest use is from Memorial Day till about mid-October, but we get use throughout the winter as well. There's a lot of day use that we don't account for or record because it's just folks coming up and don't get a permit. So, it's really hard to pin down exactly the amount of use, but it's at least 15,000/year. STEVE: [01:34] What's the average stay for someone who gets a permit back in there? MARGARET WOOD: [01:40] I think the average stay is one night, maybe 1 1/4 when you average it out. Most people who climb Whitney -- We have a good deal of folks who go up in a day, and then one night camp, maybe two nights. STEVE: [01:57] Can you tell me how that has grown? How that visitation has changed over -- I don't know -- let's start in '64 with the Wilderness Act, when this became wilderness. MARGARET WOOD: [02:07] Well, I think Whitney has always been a big draw, even back then. Probably the use of Whitney was far greater then than other wilderness areas or proposed wilderness areas because it's status as the largest in the lower 48, but in the 60s -- in the late 60s and early 70s, with the boom of backpacking, Whitney grew exponentially, so. I think it was in the late 70s and early 80s when we started looking at restrictions, because at that point we already had more people than the mountain could really handle. STEVE: [02:45] Are stays getting longer or shorter back into there? MARGARET WOOD: [02:48] I think they're getting shorter. We have -- it used to be traditional -- an average night stay was 3 nights, and now we're seeing it's more like one. Not just in Whitney, but in other places as well. The days where people would take a week or ten days to backpack in the Sierra are kind of over. People are doing weekend trips from the trailheads, and then doing other things in the front country.
Kurt, Long time reader, first time commentor. The question of declining visitor use is an interesting one and much more complex than most media outlets let on. In the academic literature, there is some evidence to suggest that at the "Crown Jewel" parks, fees have slowed the rate of growth but have not caused a decline in visitation. One important question is how do you measure? At the level of the entire Park Service, total visitation is a poor metric becuase the number of units changes almost every year. A better indicator is the per capita visitation adjusted for the number of NPS units. I suspect that by the per capita by number of NPS units metric, visitation rates have been declining since sometime in the early 1980's. At the level of individual units things become more muddied. As for Schneider's article, the theories proposed are probably all correct and all wrong. It just depends on where you are talking about.