LA Times: Camping Visits Down across NPS

While I was enjoying a little Thanksgiving turkey last week, Julie Cart with the Los Angeles Times wrote another long article about events within the National Park Service. Her topic this time was about declining visitation to the parks, and specifically about declining overnight stays within the parks.

The article, "Camp? Outside? Um, no thanks", examines who is not visiting, and why. During the busy summer months, parks are filled with a lot of families with kids, a group which disappear in the fall when school starts. In years past, the off-season has typically meant a surge in traveling retired folks, but in recent years says Julie, this group has chosen to go elsewhere.

The article also says that minorities are not well represented among those visiting the parks. Apparently African-American and Latino populations as a whole are not visiting the parks. Included among the reasons given for an unwillingness to visit are: parks are too dangerous (think spiders, poison oak, and bears), cultural insensitivities toward large family groups, too expensive, and that people were just too busy to visit.

The timing and motive of this article are a wonder to me.

The House Subcommittee on National Parks met twice over the summer to address the question of decreased park visitation, under the direction of Steve Peirce. Of the six witnesses called to testify, only one was from the Park Service. The others were from for-profit tourism associations (and a rep from the State of New Mexico Tourism Cabinet). Said Pierce at the time, "If the National Park Service will see its visitors today as its assets for the future, instead of potential impacts to the resource, then the future of the parks will be more secure".

Who has something to lose when park visitation goes down? I can't imagine that the loss in visitation bothers the bears or the trees very much. It is the for-profit groups which make money at your expense when you visit a park that are the ones who are most concerned when you don't visit. It affects their bottom line. This list includes everyone from the hospitality associations, to RV dealers, to snowmobile manufacturers, to recreation gear companies like Coleman, and boat makers. If you were to put together a list of these folks, it would probably look a lot like the member organizations of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC).

The ARC is overly concerned with low park visitation. They have many programs operating concurrently to get you back in the parks, not a bad goal really, until you understand their motivation (to make their member organizations rich). One of these programs is called WOW. Earlier this month they gave a press release which was picked up directly by the USA Today on the 22nt (Nature programs' goal: No child left inside). ARC chairman Derrick Crandall sent an email out to his constituency with self congratulations for getting their message out.
... You will also see that the USA Today story gives visibility to another important ARC message: that visits to public lands are in decline, and that is not a good nor desirable thing.

I'm not saying that Julie Cart (still my favorite National Park reporter) is a pawn for the ARC, but her timing seems too fishy. I like that her article asks why minorities are being under-represented as park visitors. But I wish she had given a nod to the group asking about low visitation, and why it is concern to their industry.


You wrote: "Who has something to lose when park visitation goes down?"

Unfortunately, the rest of us who love the parks loose in the long run. Without a grass roots political constituency to defend their preservation, you wind up only with a commercial constituency to advocate for their exploitation.

We need more programs that show people how to get back into the parks for less money. We need to sell how it's a pretty economical vacation compared to an amusement park or a big city tour. We need to get out the message that you can have a good time there without making money for the concessioners.

It's like anything now, I suppose, the interests that profit from something are the only ones who can really afford to advocate for it. Can we figure out a way to fix that?
Hi Steve,

You are correct. As tax payers, we want to know that our money is being well spent. I would love to see the day that the govt. fully funds the demands of the NPS. But, it would be impossible for our representatives to give more money to an agency that is losing popularity (as measured by park visitation). I think there are a lot of folks out there who would defend the parks, but don't know how, or don't see the current veiled danger to the park system.

Steve, I read your recent interview on podcast alley. I appreciate your philosophy that the wilderness is for everybody, not just for the 'super buff, highly skilled dudes taking spectacular risks in exotic places'. Thanks for your comments today.
Hello Steve,

The article by Julie Cart points to a concern that many of my colleagues have about the future of the National Park system. As we have all seen during the past six years, with the proper lobying money, stacking of the courts and "proper" education of our elected officials, it has become entirely evident that even our most cherished institutions can disappear. I fear for the future of the parks. These areas of pristine land contain valuable natural resources that many in moneyed circles and political power would love the exploit. It is increasinly important if our national park system is to survive, visitation must increase. So, how do we do that? I believe that is the question Ms. Cart is asking.

A large part of the answer to increasing park visitation lies in education. Many people today are educated via electronic media -- what to buy, how to look, what kind of person to date. All compliments of the ad industry. Do we ever see an ad about the great experience people had when they visited a National Park? I teach in the inner city. Until I started this program 9 years ago, not a kid at my school had heard of Sequoia National Park. I had a heck of a time convincing the administration and the parents that the kids would learn more in a five day trip to the park than they would in a month at school. Now, 9 years later, the program "Sequoia for Youth" is pretty well established and there are schools across the San Joaquin Valley and in L.A. waiting for an available opening so that the park service can give them the program. I would say that now upwards of 50% of the student population know of the program. Many want the opportunity to take the trip. But our current system with "no child left behind" has actually booted me out of the trip this year because of testing date conflicts. Simply put, our current educational prioities are not about giving kids a park experience where they can actually apply something they have learned from a textbook. Their parents are caught up in the same madness -- if their child doesn't do well on the tests, they won't succeed in life! There will be no higher education for them and their kids will turn out to be bums. So, the idea is to do more bookwork so those test scores will rise. And for pete's sake, let's not give them an experience that will change their lives and stimulate them to learn.

As Curt Nutter, the previous owner of Sequoia Village Inn, used to say: People take care of what they love; they love what they know about; they know about what they are taught. How about teaching people about the beauty and wonder of our national parks by hiring more park interpretive personnel who give educational lessons and campfire programs? How about advertising from a positive perspective the experiences people have when they visit national parks? How about promoting those wonderful restaurants found within nearly all the national parks? How about emphasizing the great physiological and mental health that people achieve when they visit a national park and walk (or jog or ski) along the trails? Let's promote parks to make them the place to visit. So much of the drop in attendence is about the marketing and we aren't doing enough of it.

Thanks for reading this. Ellen