Lured indoors by technology, fewer people are visiting America’s national parks, picking up fishing rods or toting backpacks through the woods, a trend researchers and experts say could hurt long-term conservation efforts.
“What I hear at national directors meetings is that we all are kind of alarmed, but we’re not sure what the statistics mean,” said Mike Carlton, an assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “This is an issue we’re all going to have to start exploring.”
In a recent report titled “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away From Nature-based Recreation,” researchers from the University of Illinois and the Environmental Leadership Program in Delaware point to so-called “videophilia” as a root cause of the change.
The researchers wrote that factors other than electronic entertainment may be responsible, “but they would have to be large enough in scale and impact ... to generate this type of shift.”
They also wrote in the report, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that “declining nature participation has crucial implications for current conservation efforts.”
The researchers studied visitation to public lands, game licenses issued, indicators of time spent camping and indicators of time spent hiking or backpacking.
“After 50 years of steady increase, per capita visits to U.S. national parks have declined since 1987,” they wrote. “Before this, per capita national park visits had increased from 1939 until 1987.”
They also noted other declines, including drops in the number of people hiking, camping and fishing.
“Rather than being an anomaly restricted to national parks, our results suggest a fundamental and pervasive decline in nature recreation,” they wrote.
At the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the Tennessee-Georgia border, visitation peaked in 1970 with 1.7 million visitors. Since 1998, the annual number has not been more than 1 million, according to Park Service data, though attendance reached 991,645 in 2007.
“There has been a drop from the highest levels of visitation. That’s pretty much the case across the National Park Service,” said Sam Weddle, management assistant at the battlefield. “We would love to see that trend reversed.”
Even the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most-visited national park, has had a drop in visitors, according to data from the National Park Service. Visitation at the park that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border peaked in 1999 with 10.2 million visitors. The number has fallen since then to 9.3 million visitors in 2007.
Chattanooga offers so many options for outdoor recreation that there are few practical barriers to spending time on public land locally, said Philip Grymes, director of Outdoor Chattanooga.
“We have so much public space, and it touches almost every neighborhood in this community,” he said. “We are extremely lucky to have all of this public space.”
But that doesn’t always mean people will pull themselves away from a video game to walk in the woods, he said.
“Too much is being imagined for young people today,” Mr. Grymes said. “Just going fishing or going for a hike and catching leaves as they fall, that’s not interesting enough.”
Other factors, including two-career families juggling demanding schedules, also are pushing the culture away from outdoor recreation, he said.
“People tend to be working more and have jobs that are not so routine,” he said. “I think part of this really is the changing of our society.”
For 32 years, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer Mike Bailey has worked in the outdoor spaces where people hunt, fish and hike. People have become more sedentary as more of them live in urban environments, but another major force behind the drop in outdoor recreation is development of land that once was public space, he said.
“Years ago, Marion County was absolutely a sportsman’s dream,” he said. “But all of these lands, they’re going over to development. I miss all the wild country.”
Mr. Grymes said he and his colleagues have noticed that membership in area outdoor clubs is stagnant or declining.
“We’re trying to attract newer, younger users,” he said. “The outdoor industry, even though it’s progressive, is not able to keep up with how to attract the user that’s sitting on the edge.”
Promoting events online and through text messaging is one way the industry is trying to use technology to get more people to go outside, Mr. Grymes said. But convincing young people who have grown up plugged in to get outdoors in their free time is becoming tougher all the time, Mr. Grymes said.
“I take kids backpacking, and backpacking with kids used to be something that wasn’t a hard sell,” he said. “It’s a hard sell with kids now. They say, ‘Why would I put that much weight on my back and work that hard just to go into the woods?’”
Though the information age has brought competition for the time and attention of park users, the park service also is trying to use the Internet as a “window” on America’s national parks to entice visitors, Mr. Weddle said.
Web cameras let people tethered to desks see the view from Look Rock in the western portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And a “Web ranger” program allows children to learn about the parks and earn certifications without ever having to visit them.
But the ultimate goal is to use technology to get people to step away from their computers, Mr. Weddle said.
“Our ultimate objective is to have those folks find the time and means to come and set foot on the place where those resources are,” he said.
Mr. Carlton said he sees the challenge in his own household.
“My personal experience, not as a park professional but as a parent, is I think there’s something to this,” he said. “I remember as a kid, if I got in trouble I had to stay in the house.
“Kids now have got all of these options and choices,” he said. “We used to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings. They have the Cartoon Network.”
Tennessee last year launched a Youth Conservation Corps program to get young people involved in state parks, he said, but such programs are only a start in trying to reverse the trend away from the outdoors.
“It’s going to take a lot more than that to figure this thing out,” Mr. Carlton said.