Video games, gas prices cut traffic to US parks

The number of visitors to nature-oriented national parks has been on the decline.

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.

"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.

"For the peace and serenity of being out here, I wouldn't have cared what they asked for," says Richard Smith, who drove up from Las Vegas.

In 10 days he's been tramping up every trail he can find, though it hasn't been cheap. "I had a wad of hundreds about that big when I started," he says, using his thumb and pointer finger to demonstrate a sizable roll, "and now I have about three of them left."

Sitting on a picnic table next to his F250 and his tent, he looks up at the towering pines with an expression that says it was worth every dime.

A past park survey in Yosemite didn't reveal discontent over the entrance fee, nor did the public comment period this time draw more than a few dozen objections, says Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.

Instead, Yosemite attendance is down, he suggests, for a number of reasons: gas prices, 9/11's chill on the economy and foreign visitation, the 1997 flood – and shifting demographics.

California is a "majority-minority" state, but the park doesn't yet reflect that, Mr. Gediman concedes. To expand beyond seniors, foreigners, and white families, Yosemite is trying to "bring the park" to new ethnic populations. One program put a climbing wall in Fresno to attract Hispanic youths.

Then, too, there seems to be a generation change, with children not coming to the parks as much.

"Kids have so much going on, they're just scheduled so much, that they don't come to parks," says Gediman. "Parents think that hey, it's summer, the kid's going to soccer camp."

That resonates with Susan Campos, a visitor from Clovis, Calif. She comes with her two daughters several times a year but seldom sees younger parents in her area making the trip.

"I think it's a generational change," she says. Her childhood was back in the days when kids roamed more freely, priming them for the outdoors. "We had more of a sense of adventure and we didn't have to have entertainment provided. Kids get bored much more easily."

Federal officials, governors, and others around the country have launched programs to fight what they see as "nature deficit disorder" among American couch potato kids spending increasing amounts of time in front of the TV or computer screen, playing video games, or text messaging on their cellphones – 44 hours a week, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

NWF is promoting its "Green Hour" program to get kids outdoors for an hour a day of unstructured playtime (which doesn't include organized sports) – preferably in the natural world. The idea is to instill more curiosity about nature and the parks.

Like other states, Michigan recently designated a "No Student Left Inside" day. "Helping our children connect with the outdoors is essential to making sure our natural resources are protected and respected in the future," said Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

Secretary Kempthorne has been talking up such programs as a way of boosting "the next generation of park visitors." Similarly, the US Forest Service this week launched a "Kids in the Woods" grant program to support outdoor education programs and overnight trips.

There still are young people, however, who don't need nudging. "Yosemite is the big wall mecca," says Guillem Malet, a rock climber and college student from Barcelona. "I decided to study abroad in the States because it had Yosemite."

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