ATTENDANCE DOWN AT SOME NATIONAL PARKS

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* Is America's love affair with its overcrowded national parks fading?

For the first time since the end of World War II, the number of people visiting national parks is heading in a decline that started two years ago.

Even in this desert park of 2,000 natural stone arches, where visitor numbers had jumped 51 percent since 1990, attendance may be down this year, Park Superintendent Noel Poe says.

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``We didn't believe it could continue forever. Maybe we're at that point,'' Mr. Poe says.

Attendance at neighboring Canyonlands National Park, where growth in visitor numbers had been even higher than Arches National Park, also is in a decline.

But not every park is seeing a decline in visitors.

Attendance at some parks that draw from major population centers is climbing, including Yosemite National Park in California, up 9 percent, and Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, up 17 percent for the first five months of this year.

But nationally, visits to the park system's 332 reporting units, ranging from parks to battlefields, were down 2.2 percent through May and initial reports for June and July suggest further drops. Last year, visits numbered 273.1 million, down from the previous year's 274.7 million.

Many reasons are given why park-system numbers are low, ranging from an uncertain world economy to the international attraction of World Cup soccer matches to overcrowding of the parks themselves.

``People are tired of going to overcrowded parks,'' says Rod Greenough of the Salt Lake City office of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

Still, this slight attendance decline may not eliminate long waits for parking places and camping spots. If there's a reprieve, it's not much of one, says Mr. Greenough and officials at several parks.

And it doesn't mean outdoor recreation is down on all the nation's public land. Recreation consumers just have more choices, including travel to millions of acres of less-crowded public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management or US Forest Service. Neither agency keeps close tabs on visitor numbers.

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