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Don't Be Surprised To Hear National Park Visitation Dropped Last Year

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Damage to the Washington Monument from a 2011 earthquake kept the unit closed to the public throughout 2013, something that impacted overall visitation to the National Park System. NPS photo of engineers inspecting damage.

Nasty weather, sequestration impacts, government shutdowns -- all combined in 2013 to drive down visitation to the National Park System. How much these contributed to the decline, and how much of the drop stemmed from a lack of interest in the national parks, is fodder for debate.

But what is clear, notes Butch Street, who tracks visitation for the National Park Service, is that 2013 had a lot going against park visitation.

Between the government sequestration early last year, the structural hangover from Superstorm Sandy, the shutdown in October, and the typically "soft" counts made around the National Park System, the official 2013 visitation count likely will be down about 5 percent from the year before, according to Mr. Street.

"Certainly, the shutdown didn't help us any. Because it wasn't just 15 days like people think," he said. "It was more like 25 days, because people didn't want to go to any of these destination parks knowing that they would shut down, maybe, in the middle of their vacation.

"Nor did they know when it was going to end. So there was probably another week lag there."

Superstorm Sandy, which slugged its way up the East Coast in November 2012, inflicted a lot of damage that kept some units -- such as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Fire Island National Seashore, parts of Gateway National Recreation Area -- closed months into 2013.

The Washington Monument, which typically is visited by more than 600,000 people a year, was closed throughout 2013 while engineers inspected it for damage (and repairs got under way) stemming from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. Ice and snow storms early in 2013 at various times shut down the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yosemite National Park visitation suffered from the Rim Fire.

"So there was a combination of a lot of stuff. Normally there's one major factor every year, and the other parks cover it. But not this year," he said in assessing 2013 visitation.

The sequestration early in 2013 also led to the end of tours of the White House, which is a unit of the National Park System. That right there knocked about 400,000 off the year's count, which Mr. Street last week estimated was at 269.9 million, though he still had some updating and double-checking to do before arriving at a final figure. Still, he knows the total will reflect a decline from 2012.

"We're definitely going to be down 5 percent. Nobody's going to want to hear that," he said.


Smokies backcountry visits are down because of fees to use the backcountry. And this takes into account the government shutdown had, it was negligible. Here is a visual.

smokiesbackpacker... Given that the overwhelming majority of visits to the Smokies consist of short one, to at most a few, hour day trips by car, I can't imagine that the downturn in the relatively small number of overnight backpackers would have a statistically significant impact on the overall total number of park visits. Of course, having said this, I am not a proponent for charging user fees for overnight use of the park's backcountry.

The October shutdown was more than 15 days in other ways. October in the Southeast is like Mardi Gras, Christmas and July 4th rolled up in one. But of course, the government didn't care because it thinks of the national parks as "nonessential".


One thing to keep in mind is that some of the systems in place to count visitors are very inaccurate. I remember one park that had an light beam device to count visitors but direct sunlight on the sensor caused it to continually count all through the day giving us numbers in the hundreds of thousand when there had maybe only been 2500 people. But we were still told to record the numbers. Whether those wildly wrong numbers were used I don't know.

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