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Visitation Trends


    If you've decided not to visit a national park because of increasing entrance fees, you're probably not alone. 
    Check out these visitation figures from park units clustered around the Four Corners region. The figures represent the decrease, or increase, in visitation since 1997 when the Park Service was first allowed to increase entrance fees and hold onto that change and last year.
    While the missing visitors weren't asked why they stopped visiting the park units, is it mere coincidence that the drops occurred since "Fee Demo" took root?

Aztec National Monument: Down 34%
Bandelier National Monument: Down 40%
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Down 24%
Chaco National Historic Park: Down 67%
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Down 22%
Great Sand Dunes National Park: Down 17%
Hovenweep National Monument: Up 8%
Mesa Verde National Park: Down 11%
Natural Bridges National Monument: Down 36%
Rocky Mountain National Park: Down 7%


Add all the numbers up and they represent a drop of more than 1.2 million visitors to these parks.


Visitor traffic to Channel Islands National Park has been up and down since '97. And there's no fee to enter the visitor's center and no NPS fee to visit the islands. Redwoods NP visitation went down after '96 but they have no fee. And in fee-charging parks the record isn't consistent either. Yellowstone went up in '98 and then leveled off to roughly '97 levels. Sequoia NP went down then up, then down again. Yosemite has had a downward trend. Yippee! There may be differences in counting methods. There could be differences that affected individual parks only (weather factors, the availability of accomodations, etc.) But overall, people go to the parks to seek a certain amount of solitude to commune with nature. Many of the parks have hit the limit that causes people to think "I'm not going there next year, it's too crowded".

How much of the decline is due to fees and how much is due to social and cultural changes? People work more and recreate less compared to five or ten years ago. Doesn't it stand to reason that they will have less time to visit national parks? Its easy and convenient to pin the blame on fees, but I believe there is a lot more to it than that.

I think it's very, very difficult to show a cause from a statistical correlation. It takes a lot of research and experiments on a lot of different variables. And, let's say that user fees are in part a cause of declining park visitation. A lot of people will still wonder, "So what? Weren't you all just complaining that the parks were being loved to death?" If one wants to go after user fees, I think one needs another approach tied not simply to the issue of park visitation. One needs to connect them to all kinds of user fees, what user fees represent in our political and economic system, and then evaluate whether they are worthwhile. I'm not saying this so that people stop researching the connection between visitation and user fees - that's an interesting question that can shed light on what motivates behavior. I am saying it simply because I don't think stats like this point the discussion in the right direction for coming to a resolution on the issue.

I don't think it's the user fees for the decline in the National Parks attendence....but a general lack of interest in our natural and cultural heritage...I don't see the Bush administration taking a deep interest in the National Parks.

The Chaco Canyon visitation decline makes me want to visit tomorrow. Wait. I can't afford the gas.

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