Old Faithful versus the Xbox

From the Olympics to the Rockies, the West's national parks are seeing a drop in visitors. We say we love the outdoors. Are we just too busy to go there?

Peter Fish

When visitors stop by Scott Gediman's office in California's Yosemite National Park, he likes to pull out two snapshots. One was taken in 1968, when he was 5. Still bright but with the slightly amber tint of '60s photographs, it shows Gediman and his brother standing in front of a tree, beside a Yosemite park ranger.

The second snapshot is current. It shows Gediman and his 3-year-old son, Spencer, in front of the same tree. Now Gediman is the guy in the ranger uniform ― he's Yosemite's public affairs officer.

"Our family would come to Yosemite for a week every summer," he recalls. "As a teenager, I'd come up for weeklong backpacking trips. I wanted to be a Yosemite ranger for as long as I can remember."

It's a story that makes you smile. But it may not be a story that's told much in the future. In 2007, the surprising truth is that we Americans don't seem to love our national parks the way we once did. From the Northwest to the Rockies to the desert Southwest, park visitation is falling. As for weeklong backpacking trips, who could endure so many days beyond BlackBerry range? We may even be too busy to have a snapshot taken beside a tree.

Fewer kids, even in summertime

America's "best idea," writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called the national parks. But today we seem to have other ideas. In 2006, visitation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeast New Mexico was down 45 percent from 20 years ago. Between 2002 and 2005, Olympic National Park reported a 16 percent decline. If the trend continues, this year about 500,000 fewer visitors will experience the Northwest park's rain forests and beaches than five years ago. While the smaller and more remote parks have reported the greatest decline in visitors, even the so-called flagship parks have been affected: Yellowstone use fell about 8 percent between 1995 and 2005. Among National Park Service divisions, the Pacific West Region ― which includes California, Oregon, and Washington ― recorded the steepest drop in visitors: Between 2005 and 2006, 1.3 million fewer people came in. And the Intermountain Region tallied declines in 11 of the last 13 years. Anecdotally, at least, the West's parks aren't drawing kids and teenagers the way they once did. Says Yosemite's Gediman, "I'm seeing fewer kids, even in summertime." As for backpacking trips, last summer the Outdoor Industry Foundation announced that backpacking decreased 23 percent between 1998 and 2005. Rising gasoline prices are partly to blame, reported researchers Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic in the September 2006 Journal of Environmental Management. But they also diagnosed "videophilia," noting that Americans are spending even more time in front of the screen ― watching movies (first videotapes, now DVDs), playing video games, and surfing the Web ― than they did 15 years ago. How much more? About 327 hours annually ― 13.6 days, nearly the length of the classic two-week, let's-go-see-Yellowstone vacation of old.

Other factors? Kids who are busy ― even in summer ― with sports leagues and tutoring programs. Two-career families and increased work pressures that discourage longer vacations in favor of weekend trips to nearby destinations. (Visitor figures at city-adjacent parks, like the San Francisco Bay Area's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, have remained stable. And some places, such as L.A.'s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, have even seen visitation rise in the last 15 years.)

Park officials are also concerned that they're not attracting as diverse a visitor base as they could be ― especially young people and minorities. A 2001 survey conducted for the Park Service shows that 35 percent of Caucasians and 33 percent of Asian Americans had visited a park in the past two years, while only 27 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of African Americans had. Considering that Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, rangers at Yosemite and other parks are concerned that they're missing opportunities to bring in new visitors.

Says Jen Nersesian, Yosemite's branch chief for Public Involvement and Outreach, "It's up to us to bridge that gap. How do we give people the idea that Yosemite is for everybody?"

Reaching the next generation

Quiet trails, uncrowded backcountry. Great, you think, more room to roam. But many park experts find that line of thought dangerous. Says Yosemite's Gediman, "If young people today don't value parks, what happens when it comes time for them to vote?"

The Park Service is starting to pay attention. In March, it held a workshop called "Reaching Generation Y," which focused on finding ways to interest Americans born between 1980 and 2000. Some parks hope technology will whet Gen Y's taste for the outdoors. Montana's Glacier National Park offers eHikes, where you can "view pictures, videos, 360° panoramas, and listen to the sounds of nature with a click of your mouse." And with the Park Service's WebRangers program, kids can get a ranger ID card and a taste of national parks straight from a laptop.

Still, even the sharpest flat-panel display can't replace actually seeing Old Faithful in person. A lot of us may simply need to decide, We're going to take a whole week off and go to Yellowstone ― and we don't care if we miss soccer practice.

The parks are doing their best to draw in underrepresented groups. Here, Yosemite leads. Jointly managed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Yosemite Institute, Yosemite-based WildLink organizes nine backpacking trips each year for high school kids who ordinarily would not see the park. Most are Latino, and most are from Central Valley cities, with some from greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The trips spend one day in Yosemite Valley, then head out for Tuolumne Meadows or Little Yosemite Valley. The first day, says program manager Mandy Vance, is usually tough. The packs are heavy, the outdoors big: "A lot of city kids find the wilderness a scary place." But after a couple of days, Yosemite usually wins them over. Afterward, participants share photos and journal entries on WildLink's website ― think John Muir meets MySpace.

Pedro Sarmiento was 17 when he went on a WildLink trip. For him, the highlight was the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls. "I felt like I was on top of the world," he says. These days, Sarmiento, now 21, helps coordinate WildLink Yosemite trips for the Harbor City, California, Boys & Girls Club. "Instead of being the quiet kid in the back, I'm more confident. I'm amazed at what one park can do to a person."

California: Yosemite National Park
Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park
Washington: Olympic National Park
The secret Grand Canyon
The West's other National Parks
Getting started: Backpacking
Getting hooked

"Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear ― to ignore," writes Richard Louv in the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Louv links some of 21st-century America's most dispiriting afflictions ― obesity, depression ― with what he calls "nature-deficit disorder." But he leaves room for hope. Many college-age people, Louv writes, are beginning to understand what they've missed: "This yearning is a source of power."

Like Scott Gediman, Sam Vasquez is a Yosemite ranger with a photo of his child ― daughter Laylá ― in his office. But his path to the park was very different.

"I was a city kid," he says. "Even though I grew up in Fresno, I had no connection with the park." But after high school, a lucky break landed him a summer job at Glacier National Park. "What hooked me was my first ranger program," he says. "This guy was getting paid to take folks on walks in the woods. I thought, I can do this."

Vasquez graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in speech and communications. He interned and then became a ranger at Alcatraz, worked at Pinnacles National Monument, and is now at Yosemite, where he works in Jen Nersesian's outreach office, meeting with community and school groups, preaching the gospel of Yosemite.

Vasquez has already made one convert: Laylá, about to enter high school. She goes with him on some of his public events, she tells her friends about Yosemite ― it's a place she loves. She's already hiked up Half Dome.

Yosemite comes to the city

If people aren't visiting a national park, bring the park to them. That's the philosophy behind National Parks Family Day, held annually in Fresno, California. Sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association and the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Family Day lets park rangers introduce Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks to San Joaquin Valley residents. Event coordinator Laine Hendricks says kids even get to savor that park classic: hot s'mores. For more information, visit www.npca.org/familyday or call 559/229-9343.

Info: Go to www.nps.gov for more information about our national parks; check out the WebRanger program; and visit Yosemite's WildLink for details about the program.

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