In early 2008, biologist Oliver Pergams and ecologist Patricia Zaradic touched off a wave of press coverage with a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation.” In it, they reported an 18 to 25 percent decline in per capita visitation to national parks since 1987. In other words, visitation wasn’t keeping pace with population growth. In an earlier paper (pdf) on the same trend, Pergams and Zaradic blamed the decline in per capita visits on “videophilia,” or the increasing amount of time that Americans (especially young ones) were spending watching television and playing video
Articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Forbes quoted National Parks Services spokespeople who noted that parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone were operating at capacity and that there was no “crisis” in visitation. A 2009 study in PloS Biology confirmed the per-capita decline in the U.S., however, although it found that travel to parks is on the rise elsewhere in the world.
Park visits are not, of course, the only way to measure Americans’ natural exposure. In August the Society of Environmental Journalists posted an entry to its biweekly TipSheet headlined “Outdoor Activity Trend May Be Healthier Than Reported.” In addition to citing recent data from the National Parks Service, it provided a link to a recent Outdoor Industry Association report, which found double-digit growth over the last few years for sports such as overnight backpacking, mountain biking, windsurfing, mountain climbing, sailing, snorkeling, snowshoeing, surfing, telemark skiing, trail running, triathlons, and wildlife viewing.
All said, it’s not easy to make conclusions about how much natural exposure one needs and whether or not Americans are getting enough. It’s easy to think, based on anecdotal evidence, that American children especially are losing touch with nature, but the reality is probably much more nuanced. At the very least, we can thank Ken Burns for kick-starting the media conversation about these issues. During his August press tour, one savvy reporter asked, “If someone has twelve hours, do you suggest they go to the Grand Canyon or watch your film?”
According to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, Burns suggested that “the value of the film comes if it gets people off their couches and out of their homes to actually visit a park.” And by that measure, to a certain extent, Burns has already succeeded. At the end of August, the National Parks Foundation announced that, “inspired” by the Burns documentary, it had awarded $500,000 to thirty-five national parks across the country “to develop outreach strategies and engagement programs for people who are traditionally underrepresented in their local national parks.” The grants have not received nearly enough coverage, although The Associated Press wrote one good piece about kids from local pueblos going backpacking in New Mexico (and Burns’s documentary motivated articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Journal Constitution about people of color being underrepresented in the parks).
Of course, visitation is often at odds with conservation, and maintaining the right balance is tough. In August the Journal Constitution published a story headlined, “At 75, park in Smokies is still great,” which led with news of Burns’s documentary. But two weeks later, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared that Great Smoky Mountains National Park “faces new threats” due to “a chronic lack of financial support.”
Indeed, from coast to coast the parks face a roughly $600 million shortfall and an $8 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects, not to mention the threat of global warming. But Burns’s work and the Obama family’s visit to the western parks in August called attention to those problems as well, inspiring numerous editorials, from The New York Times to the Christian Science Monitor, calling for rehabilitation and conservation measures.
Reporters cannot leave it up to Burns and the Obamas to keep the pressure on, however. Local, regional, and national media should be commended for a summer’s worth of excellent parks coverage. But, as anybody who watches all twelve hours of “America’s Best Idea” will surely understand, this is a perennial story.