Washington, DC –Fewer people are camping and boating in our national parks this year, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). After four straight years of declining visitation, overall numbers are up slightly due to people visiting monuments in Washington, DC, including such high attendance events as the March for Women/s Lives in April.
According to agency tallies, recreational camping and boating are off by more than 10 percent in the first quarter of 2004, compared with last year. Although there are gains in certain activities, such as backcountry visits, overnight stays in national parks are down for the fifth straight year.
Propelled by substantial increases in visitors to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials and other Capitol icons, overall national park visitation is up 5.3 percent or 3.1 million visits in the first four months of 2004. On the other hand, several parks, such as Olympic in Washington and the San Antonio Missions in Texas have seen major drops in visitation so far this year.
This year, the National Park Service entered into a partnership with the Travel Industry Association of America to promote visiting national parks (http://nps.seeamerica.org/) but if it is unclear whether this effort is paying dividends.
“The Park Service is trying to drum up more traffic in parks that lack enough funds even to operate at current levels,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring to what officially euphemistically called “service level adjustments” in warning of staff reductions due to diversions of funds. “The Park Service does not have any sort of strategic plan to manage traffic at overcrowded parks or to steer people to visit under-visited parks.”
One big element of growth for the national park system was increasing commuter traffic – something termed “non-recreational use.” The national park system received 48.5 million non-recreation visits in the first four months of 2004 — a 6.4 percent increase equaling 2.9 million more commuters than in the same period of 2003. Three major Washington, DC parkways (George Washington Memorial, National Capital Parks and Rock Creek Park) alone experienced a 1.1 million visit increase in commuter traffic in the first quarter of 2004.
“The principal force for growth in the national park system is not people communing with nature but people commuting through nature to get to work or somewhere else,” added Ruch. “National Park management myopically keeps a body count, with a commuter in Washington DC given the same weight as a bird watcher in Joshua Tree, without assessing what our parks are for.”