Out Of the Wilderness: Are Environmentalists Turning People Away from National Parks?
America's system of national parks, forests, bird reservations, game preserves, and national monuments provides a series of living gemstones across the land. President Theodore Roosevelt set the standard for conservationist action and the preservation of the remains of earlier lives and cultures via the Antiquities Act of 1906.
For generations, Americans and visitors from abroad flocked to these protected lands. Now, however, the visitors are dwindling, and the Economist, always robust in its views, argues that maybe it's not just the internet that's affecting our frolics in nature, but the new lure of big cities--and curiously, conservationists and environmentalists that are driving people back to concrete and neon.
Many parks and reserves have seen bitter battles between the "keep it pure" crowds and those who want to use snowmobiles, motorbikes, or even bicycles. Even nature is pitching in-- bear attacks in Alaska this summer are up.
In a wired-in world, is there still a place for quiet communing with nature, which, well, is often dirty, uncontrollable, and sometimes downright dangerous? And if there is--have conservationists made these areas too hard to enjoy?
The Economist thinks they have.
ON JULY 4th, normally the busiest public holiday of the year, tourists were put off by high petrol prices and more than 300 wildfires raging across California. On Memorial Day, traditionally the beginning of the summer season, it was cold. In 1999 there was a grisly murder. In 1997 the Merced river flooded, inundating a hotel and wiping out hundreds of campsites. There are always excuses for the absence of people in Yosemite National Park.
The number of visitors to California’s most spectacular valley has dropped
for nine out of the past 13 years, and seems to be heading down again this
year. Even in 2007—a relatively busy year—attendance was 11% below the mid-1990s peak. In America as a whole the number of visitors to national parks and historic sites peaked in 1987. Visitors are staying for less time and camping less often, especially in the wilderness. And rangers are hearing less American-accented English. Were it not for British and German tourists enjoying the weak dollar, the parks would be desolate.
Falling enthusiasm for what the writer Wallace Stegner called America’s “best idea” is especially striking in such a fast-growing part of the country.
Since 1994 California has swollen from 31.5m to over 38m people. The
speediest growth is inland, close to parks like Joshua Tree, Sequoia and
Yosemite. The same pattern holds further east. Larry Swanson of the Centre for the Rocky Mountain West notes a strong correlation between population increase and proximity to national parks and forests. Americans plainly think it is a good idea to live near national parks, but they are not so keen on visiting them.
Note: for those interested in U.S. National Park and Monuments, the excellent Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection has a plethora of resources.