Video games, gas prices cut traffic to US parks
The number of visitors to nature-oriented national parks has been on the decline.
Yosemite National Park, Calif.
The cheap family vacation to a national park, once part of the country's collective photo album, is more expensive and less popular these days. Park attendance has eroded for years, even as gasoline prices rise and a fee hike looms.Skip to next paragraph
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"We do more local trips with gas prices being so high. We had to really seriously plan this trip," says Theresa Plantikow, a teacher from Vista, Calif., who drove nine hours to Yosemite with her husband and two children. They are already priced out of the other classic family vacation, Disney. "The only time we went to Disneyland is when we won a trip."
For five days in Yosemite, they carefully budgeted $600, packing in their own food and paying roughly $150 in park fees. Gas took up much of the rest.
With declining attendance and the drive to the parks getting pricier, it's not the most auspicious moment to raise entrance fees. However, park managers and their political overseers are trying to balance the income from visitor fees and other federal funds against the cost of keeping America's "crown jewels" in good condition.
The backlog in park maintenance and resource protection – upkeep for some 8,000 miles of roads, 1,500 bridges, 400 dams, and 30,000 structures, plus protecting meadows, streams, and other wildlife habitat from the wear and tear of hiking boots – totals between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion, The Congressional Research Service estimates.
At Yosemite the backlog tops $100 million, including the removal of crumbling asphalt from trails, a new wastewater treatment plant, and the replacement of camping areas washed away by a 1997 flood.
Under Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's leadership, the National Park Service increased its budget request this year to $2.4 billion – a hefty $208 million increase.
"[The budget hike is] an important step that will put rangers back into our parks to protect these natural and cultural treasures, and educate and inspire visitors," says Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an advocacy group in Washington.
"But this represents only a down payment on what must be a multiyear, multipronged effort to restore our parks, which suffer from an operating shortfall in excess of $800 million annually," Mr. Kiernan said earlier this month as President Bush was visiting the national park site at Jamestown.
The Bush administration also has launched the "National Parks Centennial Challenge" to raise $2 billion in private contributions and federal matching funds as the park service approaches its 100-year anniversary in 2016.
That's still less than the cost of taking the family to see "Shrek the Third" (popcorn and sodas included), but other financial considerations may also be having an impact. Gasoline costs typical households about $1,000 more a year than in 2001, and AAA expects Americans to take shorter trips this summer. The cost of staying and playing in national parks – prices typically set by private concessionaires – has been rising, too.
It's hard to know how much all of this factors into the 5 percent decline in park attendance since 1999. The number of annual visitors to Yosemite has dropped 20 percent since 1996 (the year before the cost of a carful of visitors went from $5 to $20); Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain are also down. Overnight park stays in particular have declined, according to the National Park Service.
Visitors to Yosemite seem unfazed by the entrance fee hikes. Another $5 wouldn't stop Plantikow – nor dozens of others interviewed – from returning.