Downward slide: Visitation declines as national park rates climb

National park fees may be going up, but visitor numbers are steadily sagging, causing park officials to scratch their heads and Fee Demo opponents to point their fingers.

According to the National Park Service, between 2000 and 2006, park visitation dropped nationally nearly 5 percent, from 286 million to 273 million. The numbers bottomed out at 266 million in 2003 before rebounding to 277 million in ’04 and settling at the current level of 273 million in ’05.

Four Corners numbers tell a similar story, but Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition says it’s a downward slide that actually began in 1997 – the first year that fees were introduced to many national sites. According to Park Service numbers, between 1997 and 2006, the following parks experienced these percentage drops in visitation: Mesa Verde, 11 percent; Chaco Canyon,

67 percent; Natural Bridges, 36 percent; Arches, 3 percent; Canyonlands, 9 percent; and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, 24 percent.

According to Benzar, the reason for the decline is obvious. “Park Service numbers are down about 5 percent since Fee Demo came in, to me, it’s a no-brainer,” she said. “The parks have gotten greedy.” In the Four Corners area, she said this drop has resulted in a loss of 1.2 million visitors, with a commensurate drop in local revenues.

However, Park Service officials say the problem is not so black and white. “There are half a dozen reasons on why we are seeing a decline,” said David Barna, National Parks Service spokesman. “It’s not just fees. I just don’t think anyone has a real handle on why.”

He said the biggest drop occurred in the wake of Sept, 11, 2001, which put a damper not only on domestic travel, but

international travel to the United States as well. “A lot of people just didn’t want to fly,” he said. The ensuing recession and increasing gas prices also helped make travel by car less appealing, further dropping American visits. Abroad, he said unfavorable exchange rates or opposition to the U.S. War in Iraq also could have kept international travelers away.

However, Barna also pointed to a more troubling possibility – that with modern technology and the advancement of the computer age, kids today aren’t as interested in the outdoors. Barna said a recent book, Last Child in the Woods, talks about this developing trend. “Basically, kids today play inside at the computer and are losing touch with nature,” he said.

He also said that with busier work schedules, people aren’t able to travel as far to recreate. He points to a silver lining in the dilemma: an increase in visitation

to parks located close to large population centers, such as the East Coast’s Shenandoah and Gettysburg sites. “We become so busy that we don’t take those long vacations. It makes it hard on those rural areas,” he said.

But one rural area bucking the trend is Hovenweep National Monument, near Dove Creek. In the period between 1997 and 2006, Hovenweep experienced an increase in visitors of 8 percent.

Natural Bridges superintendent Coralee Hays, who oversees Hovenweep, said the increase can be attributed to several factors, including a new, third, paved access road to the site; overflow visitors when Mesa Verde is closed because of fires; as well as increased publicity, including recent underwriting on National Public Radio. “People are just discovering that it’s more accessible than they thought,” she said.

– Missy Votel