From rising gas prices to increasing rates of foreign travel to widespread Internet use, Americans have plenty of excuses to forgo regular visits to a national park — and that's exactly what they seem to be doing.
The trend can be traced to 1987, when annual visits to national parks peaked at 287 million following steady increases over 50 years. Since then, the number of visits has decreased marginally and has never exceeded the 1987 record. In 2007, there were 276 million visits.
Per capita visits have also declined, according to research by Dr. Oliver Pergams, a professor of conservation and evolutionary biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dr. Patricia Zaradic, a conservation ecologist. In a 2008 study they looked at per capita visits to public lands like national parks and forests; use of hunting licenses, duck stamps and fishing licenses; and rates of backpacking, camping and hiking in the U.S., Japan and Spain from 1988 to 2003. Despite modest increases in some areas, they saw a universal decline in nature-based activities, hinting at a "fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation."
The National Park Service (NPS) disagrees with the methodology.
"The per capita numbers really don't have a meaning for us," says spokesman Jeffrey Olson. He says that 10 million fewer visits over 20 years is a minimal decrease and that many iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite operate at capacity. "We still do better attendance-wise than most major league sporting activities."
Still, the fundamental shift away from nature is the trend that concerns the NPS, and it's working on several fronts to attract new audiences while convincing the sedentary boomers interested in history and the Millennials who prefer whitewater rafting to remain loyal. The new frontier, many say, is to transform school-age children into naturalists and better serve adventurous adults and families tired of experiencing a national park from the confines of their car.
"The whole idea was, 'What if you lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the city and you found out you owned 80 million acres of the U.S.?'" says Corky Mayo, program manager for interpretation and education at the NPS. "That makes your apartment a little bit bigger."
Turning children into naturalists
This question sparked the creation of WebRangers, an Internet site for school-age children that was launched in 2003 as a virtual version of the park's longstanding Junior Ranger program. Started in the 1960s, the Junior Ranger program allowed youngsters visiting a park to earn badges performing various educational and nature-based tasks.
WebRangers allows users to rack up nifty-looking badges while completing 47 different educational games like a lesson in how to run a dog sled team, a tutorial on civil war history and a primer in Arctic artifacts.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the agency is using the site to stoke interest in the outdoors. Mayo says the online games encourage children to prod their parents into taking them to a nearby park. It helps that each WebRangers session begins at a personalized "ranger station," where children can easily view Webcams located at national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Denali.
Between Aug. 29, 2005, and Dec. 31, 2007, according to Mayo, WebRangers had 440,000 unique users, with an average of 35,000 to 40,000 page views a month and participants from 87 different countries.
At the parks themselves, many of the 325 Junior Ranger programs nationwide are getting makeovers to encourage more physical activity and contact with the environment. In general, the park service is entrusting students with more hands-on responsibilities, giving them a real stake in conservation.
At Biscayne National Park in Florida students are working in concert with rangers to help grow new coral in a lab and then transplant it in the ocean. In Oregon, the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park has adopted the class of 2016 and will bring 500 students from five school districts in Clatsop County into the park on a regular basis until their high school graduation.
"The thought was to try to get nontraditional audiences into the park," says Susan Sachs, the center's education coordinator, referring to both children of different ethnic and age groups. The center is one of 19 learning centers at various national parks funded primarily by the federal government since 2001.
There is also at least one distance-learning program for students unable to visit a park. At the California Mediterranean Research Learning Center in the Santa Monica Mountains National Park, rangers go into the field with a video camera and broadcast it to classrooms where students can ask questions in real time.
While these hands-on, interactive programs may transform ordinary students into budding naturalists, Dr. Oliver Pergams argues that government must broaden its reach. He advocates legislative intervention in the form of a bill called No Child Left Inside. Introduced to Congress in 2007, the bill would reduce the "nature deficit" amongst children by requiring science and nature education in every school in addition to a fieldwork component in local, state and national parks.
Targeting adults and families
Meanwhile, tour operators are looking to provide enhanced services to adults and families eager to explore a national park but hesitant about doing it on their own.
Ashley Korenblat, president of the Moab, Utah-based tour operator Western Spirit, says her clients need help navigating the backcountry and want a more sophisticated experience than most national parks currently offer.
"The experience has become drive somewhere, jump out of the car and then drive somewhere else," says Korenblat. "Many of these parks were built in the '50s when cars were thought to be nothing but good."
As an alternative, Korenblat offers clients a well-choreographed trip to explore the backcountry, which is a remote, undeveloped and less-traveled area of a park. Families benefit particularly from the assistance of a guide who knows exactly how long it takes two adults and two children to hike a mile-long trail to the shores of Crater Lake in Oregon, for example.
While Korenblat, who is also the former president of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is currently working with the NPS on expanding bike paths and lanes within the parks, she believes that "little pockets of creativity" are responsible for some of the most innovative changes. In recent years, a 100-mile stretch of national grassland between the northern and southern parts of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park became a mountain biking destination after rangers created a single track trail to link the two.
At the Redwood National Park in California, the tour operator Redwood Adventures is also working to draw new visitors. In 2007, there were 385,000 visits to the park, a decline from 2003 when there were 408,000.
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Grant Roden, Redwood Adventures' general manager, says, while the park has yet to develop new programs, officials have welcomed the presence of companies like his.
"They see it as the private sector that will make the park a destination," says Roden, who is quick to note that they work closely with local agencies. "We can be the eyes and ears of the parks."
Redwood Adventures currently offers several packages, including hiking and coastal tours, mountain bike riding, fishing and kayaking. Along with other businesses, they are looking for new ways to grab the attention of passers-by who drive through the park on Highway 101, usually destined for San Francisco or Portland, Ore.
Their daily challenge is representative of what the National Park Service faces on a grand scale.
"What we're trying to do," says Roden, "is get people off the road so they can start learning about the [redwood] trees."
© 2012 Forbes.com