Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Measuring our love for our national parks

From time to time some periodical or other reports that we are overrunning our national parks. As resorts and cities become more expensive as tourist destinations, and as it becomes easier, thanks to electronics and miniaturization, to carry along the comforts of home, more people are throwing the kids in the SUV and trekking to our wilderness areas to be with nature. This level of traffic is stressing animal and plant life, crumbling roads and eroding trails, straining maintenance resources, and detracting from the pristine beauty that draws visitors in the first place.

So Juliet Eilperin's piece, "'Videophilia' Keeps America Indoors" in today's Washington Post, came as a surprise. According to Eilperin, attendance at America's national parks has been shrinking since 1987! And she relates the findings of two researchers that the popular obsession with at-home movies, the Internet, and video games is responsible for perhaps 97.5% of the drop in park tourism.

Oh, come on. Staying in to see The Day After Tomorrow for the 80th time is what one does instead of weeding the yard, not instead of taking a Yellowstone vacation. That the researchers' conclusion is implausible becomes clear when they observe that "[i]n 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours than in 1987 watching movies, playing video games and using the Internet" as though it were not only an explanation but a revelation. In 1987 the average American devoted no hours to Internet use! If the average American now spends at least an hour each day on-line, that more than accounts for 327 hours spent on the Internet alone. Of course we now spend at least that much time on the Internet, movies, and video games together. And since most Internet use is for work, shopping, correspondence, and entertainment after school or work—in other words, activities in which people have always engaged in—it certainly is not displacing trips to national parks.

Returning to the question of whether park use is declining, I wonder whether all the previous articles I've read on the subject were wrong. I also wonder how alarmed I should be about the fears, noted in the article, that dwindling public exposure to national parks will lead to reduced public concern for the environment and conservation. So on the one hand the parks are being trampled to death by unrelenting swarms of tourists, and on the other hand they are at dire risk of neglect owing to plummeting attendance. Whichever way visitor statistics are actually headed, it's bad!

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