Friday, July 16, 2010

What is the purpose of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative

Maybe it's just me, but I'm having a hard time trying to understand what the “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” is all about. Seems to me that it's just an excuse to just spend more money - our tax dollars.

According to coverage of the event in Asheville yesterday, the listening session focused on how to get kids more interested in the outdoors. Some of the suggestions that were brought up include:

• More education about the outdoors in schools, as well as more funding for outdoor learning and field trips.

• Increased funding for local, state and federal parks and programs to promote the outdoors.

• Draft public figures and celebrities to launch a media campaign to encourage young people to get outside.

I don't understand why this is an issue. Let's take a look at total park visitation trends for the entire national park system from 1979 through 2009:

After a sharp increase in the early-eighties, visitation to our national parks has been relatively flat. Why is that bad? I would also point out that with the sharp increase in the number of wilderness areas around the country in recent years, there may be more people who are electing to go to those places rather than a national park.

Furthermore, the Outdoor Foundation found in its 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report that Americans are spending more time outside. The report shows a 3.3% increase in what they call “core” outdoor activities (from 97.5 million to 100.7 million Americans ages 6 and above) during 2009. The report also found that participation in hiking has increased by 8.4% over the last nine years.

Perhaps more importantly, why do we want more people in our parks anyway? Is it really a good thing?

Just a few years ago the headlines were constantly screaming that we were loving our parks to death. Now we want to make them even more crowded?

If the purpose of this listening tour is to try to encourage more children to visit our parks, this obviously means they'll likely be visiting during the summer when school is out. Think about how crowded parks like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite already are during the summer months.

From my vantage point, I don't see a lack of love for our national parks as being a problem. What do you think? Am I missing something?

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, and more.


Tom Mangan said...

Jeff: a few points:

1) That chart does not compare changes in U.S. population over that 20-year stretch.

2) It's an article of faith that the surest way to motivate people to preserve natural places is to get them out in nature and experience it first-hand.

3) As for "our tax dollars" -- governments spend very little of it on recreation, and study after study has shown that localities get this money back several times over. Often the investment generates 10-to-1 returns. We're not talking $1,400 toilet seats here; hedge funds would love to see such a return.

smoky scout said...

Although I can't cite the sources here, I've read recently that the age of frequent visitors to national parks is trending upward, i.e. fewer kids. Also, the consensus is that kids spend much less time outdoors than in past generations. So put those two together and expand on Tom's #2 - I think it's important to get more kids out there so that they will grow up to be good stewards of our public lands.

I am always a little uncomfortable at the suggestion that there are "too many people" using our public lands. What if someone decided that I am one of those "too many?" What makes me more special than the next guy, just because I discovered the outdoors before he did?

Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Tom - I agree with your points on #1 and #2.

On #3, I also agree that the people of Gatlinburg, etc., have greatly benefitted from GSMNP. However, why should someone in Kansas, as an example, a state that doesn't have a nat'l park, have to pay taxes to promote national parks, but not receive any financial rewards in return?

You're right, the amount of money in the grand scheme of things is small, but we have local/state and nat'l budgets that are exploding. A couple months ago I posted an article warning that over-spending could threaten our parks - and cited a couple of examples where states have closed or were considering closing state parks.

Smoky Scout - I'm not saying that anyone should ever be excluded or prevented from visiting any park. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't use tax dollars to fuel an existing problem (of over-crowded parks).

One other thing to consider - the kids can't drive themselves to parks. Maybe it's the parents that aren't interested for whatever reason. In other words, the problem may not be one of getting kids motivated, but rather the issue lies with the parents. Therefore, the marketing effort in question may be mis-allocated.

Finally, I'll leave with a quote from an anonymous poster on this subject on the National Parks Traveler site:

"similarly, as we learn in life, we cant make anyone feel, think, believe, do anything they don't want to on their own"

Thanks for your input!


smoky scout said...

I always appreciate the dialogue, Jeff!

The reasons why kids don't spend as much time outdoors mostly do stem from parents' decisions - we could go on for weeks on that topic alone. Still, just because kids can't drive themselves there - yet - I still think there should be an effort made by others to instill appreciation, enjoyment and stewardship.

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