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Park Visitation Hearing: Deja Vu All Over Again?


    Representative Stevan Pearce will bang down his gavel tomorrow to again explore the mystery of why national park visitation fluctuates from year to year instead of rocketing ever upward. I say "again," because he explored the very same topic during an April hearing.
    While it's nice that the Republican from New Mexico is so very interested in the national parks, you'd think he'd cast his net farther for answers rather than inviting the same cast of witnesses to appear at tomorrow's hearing. I mean, does he expect to hear something different from Dr. Suzanne Cook, the senior VP for the Travel Industry Association of America; Michael Cerletti, New Mexico's tourism secretary; John Schoppman, the executive VP for concessionaire Forever Resorts; or Bob Warren, chairman of the National Alliance of Gateway Communities?
    I see where there are two additions: Scott Ahlsmith, chairman of the board of the Travel Institute and Chris Jarvi, the Park Service's associate director of Partnerships, Interpretation and Education. But why is no one from the National Parks Conservation Association or The Wilderness Society among the witnesses, or even Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods?   
    If there truly is a steady, consistent decline in national park visitation, I don't think the solution will come only from that sector which makes its money off the parks.

    And, as I noted back in April, I don't see a big visitation decline, one that should shake the Park Service down to its very foundation out of fear that Americans don't love the parks any more.
    As testimony introduced at April's hearing noted, there are many, many factors affecting park visitation. They range from high gas prices, a slow economy, a drop in international visitors, even natural disasters such as hurricanes that close parks for weeks and weeks.
     Here's a snippet from my April post:
    While (national park) visitation was on a relatively steady climb from 1979 (205.4 million) to 1987 (287.2 million), since then its yo-yoed up and down, dipping to 255.6 million in 1990 before climbing to 274.7 million in 1992, dropping to 265.8 million in 1996, soaring to 287.1 million in 1999, dipping to 266 million in 2003 and then rising --by nearly 11 million!-- to 276.9 million the following year.
    It helps, too, I think, if these claims of flat or declining national park visitation were put in context with visitation levels to other public lands, for that shows that recreation on public lands in general has been relatively flat, if not in decline.
    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. Should we hold congressional hearings on those trends?

    As you can see, visitation ebbs and flows across the public landscape. "Kath" did an unofficial survey of park visitation and pointed out in one of her comments to my post on the American Recreation Coalition's ridiculous accusation that the Park Service is not meeting the spiritual, mental and physical needs of Americans and found that there are no good trends when it comes to park visitation.
These national parks had more visits in 2004 than 1999: Sequoia, Zion, Glacier and Mt. Rushmore. These had fewer visits: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Jefferson National Expansion (the St. Louis Arch) and Rocky Mountain," she noted. "Some parks in or close to cities had decreases. Some parks that require a long drive had increases. Some had decreases.
    "My thought: Certain parks have reached the limit of what visitor counts they can handle. It's the 'no one goes there anymore, it's too crowded' phenomenon. People are choosing to go to the less-crowded parks and staying away from places that are often packed with people like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. So visits to those parks go down," said Kath.
    I think there's wisdom there. But I also think the other factors -- gas prices, the economy, natural disasters, rising entrance fees, IPods and Game Boys -- all are influencing the visitation levels.
    Should we be concerned? That's another good question that needs to be explored. The fact that many, if not all, parks have maintenance backlogs in the millions of dollars could indicate that their facilities are being overrun as much as it indicates the Park System is not getting the financial support it needs from Congress.
    Plus, is a measure of respectable visitation crowds ten deep in front of Old Faithful or on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, (which already can't handle the auto traffic it receives) or steady chains of traffic circling the Yosemite Valley?
    All that said, taking testimony from folks whose over-riding goal is to introduce, or increase, motorized recreation in the parks seems short-sighted to me when there are so many other variables that should be taken into consideration. Yet with his selection of witnesses for this second hearing, Representative Pearce seems to have indicated that he doesn't want to consider other factors.

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