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?
When visitors stop by Scott Gediman's office in California'sYosemite National Park, he likes to pull out two snapshots. One wastaken in 1968, when he was 5. Still bright but with the slightlyamber tint of '60s photographs, it shows Gediman and his brotherstanding in front of a tree, beside a Yosemite park ranger.
The second snapshot is current. It shows Gediman and his3-year-old son, Spencer, in front of the same tree. Now Gediman isthe guy in the ranger uniform ― he's Yosemite's publicaffairs officer.
"Our family would come to Yosemite for a week every summer," herecalls. "As a teenager, I'd come up for weeklong backpackingtrips. I wanted to be a Yosemite ranger for as long as I canremember."
It's a story that makes you smile. But it may not be a storythat's told much in the future. In 2007, the surprising truth isthat we Americans don't seem to love our national parks the way weonce did. From the Northwest to the Rockies to the desertSouthwest, park visitation is falling. As for weeklong backpackingtrips, who could endure so many days beyond BlackBerry range? Wemay even be too busy to have a snapshot taken beside a tree.
Fewer kids, even in summertime
America's "best idea," writer and environmentalist WallaceStegner called the national parks. But today we seem to have otherideas. In 2006, visitation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park insoutheast New Mexico was down 45 percent from 20 years ago. Between2002 and 2005, Olympic National Park reported a 16 percent decline.If the trend continues, this year about 500,000 fewer visitors willexperience the Northwest park's rain forests and beaches than fiveyears ago. While the smaller and more remote parks have reportedthe greatest decline in visitors, even the so-called flagship parkshave been affected: Yellowstone use fell about 8 percent between1995 and 2005. Among National Park Service divisions, the PacificWest Region ― which includes California, Oregon, andWashington ― recorded the steepest drop in visitors: Between2005 and 2006, 1.3 million fewer people came in. And theIntermountain Region tallied declines in 11 of the last 13 years.Anecdotally, at least, the West's parks aren't drawing kids andteenagers the way they once did. Says Yosemite's Gediman, "I'mseeing fewer kids, even in summertime." As for backpacking trips,last summer the Outdoor Industry Foundation announced thatbackpacking decreased 23 percent between 1998 and 2005. Risinggasoline prices are partly to blame, reported researchers OliverR.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 infront of the screen ― watching movies (first videotapes, nowDVDs), playing video games, and surfing the Web ― than theydid 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 andincreased work pressures that discourage longer vacations in favorof weekend trips to nearby destinations. (Visitor figures atcity-adjacent parks, like the San Francisco Bay Area's Golden GateNational 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 asdiverse a visitor base as they could be ― especially youngpeople and minorities. A 2001 survey conducted for the Park Serviceshows that 35 percent of Caucasians and 33 percent of AsianAmericans had visited a park in the past two years, while only 27percent of Latinos and 14 percent of African Americans had.Considering that Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of theU.S. population, rangers at Yosemite and other parks are concernedthat they're missing opportunities to bring in new visitors.
Says Jen Nersesian, Yosemite's branch chief for PublicInvolvement and Outreach, "It's up to us to bridge that gap. How dowe give people the idea that Yosemite is for everybody?"
Reaching the next generation
Quiet trails, uncrowded backcountry. Great, you think, more roomto 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 helda workshop called "Reaching Generation Y," which focused on findingways to interest Americans born between 1980 and 2000. Some parkshope technology will whet Gen Y's taste for the outdoors. Montana'sGlacier National Park offers eHikes, where you can "view pictures,videos, 360° panoramas, and listen to the sounds of naturewith a click of your mouse." And with the Park Service's WebRangersprogram, kids can get a ranger ID card and a taste of nationalparks straight from a laptop.
Still, even the sharpest flat-panel display can't replaceactually seeing Old Faithful in person. A lot of us may simply needto decide, We're going to take a whole week off and go toYellowstone ― and we don't care if we miss soccerpractice.
The parks are doing their best to draw in underrepresentedgroups. Here, Yosemite leads. Jointly managed by the National ParkService, the Forest Service, and the Yosemite Institute,Yosemite-based WildLink organizes nine backpacking trips each yearfor high school kids who ordinarily would not see the park. Mostare Latino, and most are from Central Valley cities, with some fromgreater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The trips spend one day in Yosemite Valley, then head out forTuolumne Meadows or Little Yosemite Valley. The first day, saysprogram manager Mandy Vance, is usually tough. The packs are heavy,the outdoors big: "A lot of city kids find the wilderness a scaryplace." But after a couple of days, Yosemite usually wins themover. Afterward, participants share photos and journal entries onWildLink'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 feltlike I was on top of the world," he says. These days, Sarmiento,now 21, helps coordinate WildLink Yosemite trips for the HarborCity, California, Boys & Girls Club. "Instead of being thequiet kid in the back, I'm more confident. I'm amazed at what onepark can do to a person."