Got this from a California BLM newsletter.
Find it a little interesting.
Internet killing park visits, raising conservation worries
By John Timmer | Published: February 05, 2008 - 01:10PM CT
What if you provided cheap access to a stunning visual experience and nobody showed up? That's not quite the situation that the US National Parks system finds itself in at the moment, but it may soon if current trends continue. After years of attendance increases, the parks have seen a steady drop in visitors since 1987, a decline that's been blamed on increased media consumption. A study released yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that this trend is nearly uniform across outdoor activities, and is being experienced around the globe. The global decline in outdoor interest is raising concerns that future generations will be indifferent to environmental issues.
The new study is a follow up to earlier work that tracked the decline in National Parks visits, and correlated them with a number of factors, including rising fuel prices and increases in Internet use and media consumption. The authors concluded that the trends represented a move away from appreciation of the outdoors, and termed its replacement "videophilia."
That interpretation came in for a variety of criticisms. For example, National Park visits declined with income while foreign travel went up, suggesting that people could still be getting exposed to nature overseas. It was also noted that the previous rise had caused overcrowding in some parks without budget increases to match, leading to high admission fees, decaying infrastructure, and other related issues. People might simply be skipping the National Parks in favor of state parks or other federal land.
The new study attempts to address these criticisms in several ways. For one, it incorporates data from the Spanish and Japanese national park systems to get a greater sense of global trends. It also includes data from many of the National Park alternatives: state parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management areas. Finally, general use of the outdoors is tracked by industry data on camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and backpacking.
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Almost every one of these datasets shows a similar trend. Declines started during the 1980s, and have typically been in the area of just over one percent a year, producing a net decline of 18-25 percent. The only things that are running counter to these trends are the activities that attract the smallest number of people: hiking and backpacking. Although this may represent a shift in activities (more campers may now be hikers), those changes are swamped by the overall general trend.
I'm not entirely convinced by the argument for videophilia. It's equally possible that increased consumption of media and decreased outdoor activities are both the product of other external factors. Some of the more obvious potential causes include the rapid rise of obesity levels and a decrease in vacation time caused by a general sense of lower financial and career security in recent years. The Internet may simply be the best option in the face of insecurity and physical limitations.
Regardless of the cause, however, the trends are clear and are likely to have consequences. The authors cite a variety of studies that indicate that the best way of attracting interest in conservation and environmental issues is by exposure to the environment. "Environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with the environment... people must be exposed to natural areas as children if they are to care about them as adults," the authors write. "Extended periods spent in natural areas, as well as creating a role model, seem to create the most environmentally responsible behavior and increased involvement in biodiversity conservation."
I'd add to that argument that the trend may portend bad things for the public's appreciation of science. Some of the most compelling and easiest-to-grasp examples of scientific knowledge come in the form of natural history. The geology that created our National Parks and the biology that populates them with charismatic megafauna, when explained by qualified park staff, may be one of the best ways to expose people to science in a way that's approachable. Losing that exposure, for any reason, may leave people less able and interested in coming to grips with science in general.