Are Americans Wild Enough?

Ken Burns’s documentary and the debate over how much nature we need

On Sunday evening PBS will air Ken Burns’s much anticipated documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. News outlets and blogs were filled with reviews on Friday, a fitting end to a summer awash in news of our nation’s parks.

In early June, the National Parks Service announced that it would, for the first time, waive entrance fees on weekends in June, July, and August in an attempt to attract frugal vacationers during the recession. That spawned numerous national and local articles extolling the virtues of traveling close to home. In early August, Burns did a press tour that produced an early, sparse round of reviews of his documentary. Two weeks later, parks coverage reached its zenith when the Obama family visited Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

Whether or not all the attention will matter for the parks, embattled by a lack of funding and by climate change, or the American public, accused of suffering from “nature deficit disorder” and “videophilia,” remains to be seen.

Two days before the First Family’s trip to the western parks, the National Parks Service announced that total visits to the parks during the first half of 2009 were almost 4.5 million higher than the same period in 2008. An Associated Press story about the “nearly 4 percent” (3.5 percent on the nose) uptick got wide play, characterizing it as the “upside of the economic downturn.” In July, Yellowstone had a record number of visitors and other parks posted their highest figures in a decade. At the end of September, total annual visitation was still on track to be 3 to 4 percent higher than a year ago.

Great, right?

Not so fast. While Burns was promoting the country’s “best idea” (after equal rights, of course) in early August, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took his eleven-year-old daughter backpacking in Oregon and “kept thinking of something tragic: so few kids these days know what happens when you lick a big yellow banana slug.” Kristof saw it as a sign of what Richard Louv called “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.

A lack of awareness of the fact that Frenching a slug will make your tongue numb is not the best metric for gauging natural exposure, of course, but to support his point Kristof added that “the number of visits to America’s national parks has been slipping for more than a decade.” Fortunately, that statement is a bit misleading.

Visitation over the last five years was better than it was in the early to mid-nineties. The National Parks Service makes visitation statistics readily available on its Web site. Pouring them into an Excel spreadsheet quickly shows that annual visitation has remained basically flat for the last for last twenty-five years, with peaks in the late eighties and late nineties. In 1987 and 1999, just over 287 million people visited; in 2008, just under 275 million did. In other words, last year was well above average for the entire period of the park service’s data, which goes back to 1979. It was just under average for the last decade.

Understanding this, one might view the recent ten-year decline as part of the normal statistical fluctuation. In an early review of Burns’s documentary, Timothy Egan, another Times columnist, noted that the parks “still draw more people than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and Nascar combined… The problem is that 10 years ago, the parks attracted bout 12 million more visitors than they do today.”

He could have also written that twelve years ago, they attracted ten million fewer. But there’s a catch to total visitation numbers, at any rate.

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.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.