Social change prompts call for new look at recreation

Back in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House and gasoline cost 28 cents a gallon, a congressional panel sat down to assess the recreational needs of the United States for the rest of the century.

By all accounts the finished report - all 23 volumes of it - was a monumental piece of work, so much so that it still shapes federal and state policies.

Unfortunately, those projections wer already way out of date by 1976, critics have begun saying. It is time, they argue, for a comprehensive new look at the recreational patterns and needs of the American people.

If either of a pair of bills now under consideration in Congress wins passage , the critics will have their way.

Many people, the 1962 study assumed, would use the automobile for outdoor recreation - strictly as an end in itself, for pleasure trips, or to drive to sports events, concerts, plays, and the like.

In fact, this has happened. But consider some of the changes in the American life style in the years since the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission delivered its massive report:

* While the population has become more mobile, the price of gasoline at the pump has increased almost fivefold.

* Higher divorce rates have created more and more single-parent households. Such families are forced to make maximum use of free time and have to plan recreational outings more carefully than the traditional two-parent family.

* The US population, on average, has become older, better paid, and more leisure-oriented. By 1985, Americans will be spending about $74 billion a year on recreation, according to a study by economists and park administration specialists at Texas Tech University.

* Population and industry have shifted south and west in search of cheaper living costs, more promising business opportunities, and a more congenial climate.

Companies planning to move their plants or open new ones - as well as the cities seeking to attract them - have learned to place recreation high on their checklists. This usually favors Southern and Western cities. Yet workers who have grown used to the swimming and boating opportunities near such Northern cities as Detroit or Boston may find that some Sunbelt locations have definite drawbacks when it comes to water sports.

* Women have become a far more important segment of the labor force. And, largely because of federal requirements for equal recreational opportunities in the public schools, women now participate more than ever before in sports - an activity many seek to extend beyond graduation.

* Employers have begun adjusting working hours to fit the demands and tastes of their staffs. Thanks to innovations like flexible time and job-sharing, some workers now have as many as four consecutive days off per week.

These patterns have placed demands on federal, state, and local recreation facilities that were unforeseen in 1962. For example, administrators have had to rush some new parks, campgrounds, and other facilities into service earlier than planned, lest the existing ones wear out prematurely.

At the same time, says the Washington-based National Recreation and Park Association, deficit-ridden governments have cut their recreation budgets. Thus, staffing and maintenance of parks and other facilities have fallen to less than desirable levels.

The association says many legislators don't even realize that recreation is one of the major industries in their states.

Moreover, the group complains, the reorganization of the US Department of the Interior by Secretary James Watt will eliminate the jobs of associate director for recreation resources and one of two National Park Service deputy directors for recreation po,icy and administration.

In place of the first administrator will be a new associate director for planning and development. But the new post will carry major new responsibilities not directly linked to delivering recreational services.

To take up some of the slack in government's ability to provide adequate recreational facilities, many companies are developing their own, either on or off company premises.

Normally, these facilities are intended just for the use of employees. But recreation specialists say that given the right incentives - like corporate tax breaks - companies might well consider opening their facilities to the public. Such cooperation is already common between local communities and nearby military bases.

The National Recreation and Park Association and an independent panel, the Outdoor Recreation Policy Review Group organized by Laurance S. Rockefeller, both call for a federally established commission to probe government and private-sector roles in providing outlets for recreation.

A bill in the US Senate would create just such a commission of 15 members, eight from Congress and seven from the private sector. It would draw on the 1962 study but deliver a new one inPlnh O hs that, in the words of a public lands subcommittee aide, ''looks at what's happened in the meantime and where we go from here.''

The bill has 28 cosponsors, but no hearings have been held because of a jurisdictional dispute between the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

An identical bill has been introduced in the House.

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