WASHINGTON, DC--Citing a "system wide decrease in visitation," preliminary figures for the first half of 2003 show a dramatic decline in public visitation to units within the National Park System, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). If the trend holds, 2003 will be the fourth straight year with fewer people visiting our national parks, seashores and monuments.
Figures obtained by PEER show that in the first five months of 2003, park visitation fell nearly 8 percent from the same period in 2002. In the January to May 2002 period, 97 million people visited the parks. This year that number declined to 90 million. The downward trend began in 2000, but so far 2003 shows the biggest percentage drop.
Overall, since the decline started in 2000, the National Park Service (NPS) "has had a total decline of almost 16.8 million recreation visits." One agency memo ascribes the decline to "inclement weather, global warfare and especially the uncertain economic conditions resulting in a disturbing future for visitation to the NPS."
Nearly three quarters of all NPS units reported decreased visitors and that falloff was "not concentrated in any geographic area but reflects a system wide decrease," according to another memo. While most parks reported less usage, others, such as the Cape Hatteras and Gulf Islands National Seashores posted sizeable visitor gains.
"For decades our national discourse about the nation's parks has been centered on how we have been ‘loving them to death', yet, for all the hand-wringing, the Park Service never engaged in any credible efforts to prevent that much talked about ‘death,' commented PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former long-time Park Service manager. "The Park Service should use this respite to rethink its priorities and shift away from edifice building--what we call ‘parkbarrel'--and invest in reversing the decline in the integrity and quality of park resources."
Despite the current decline, Congress is now debating plans for bigger entrance stations, larger parking lots and expanded visitor centers.
According to figures compiled by PEER, the last multi-year decline in national park visitation occurred between 1985 and 1987.
Contact PEER to view the Park visitation numbers between 1980 and 2002.