Fresh air, wildlife, purple mountains’ majesty. This country’s national parks have long been considered a jewel in the crown of American democracy – all accessible to anyone for a nominal charge or even for free. And ever since ol’ Teddy Roosevelt established the park system, Americans and people from all over the world have flocked to them for inspiration, recreation, and escape.
Until recently, that is. After half a century of steady increase, from the beginning of regular record-keeping in 1939 through the late 1980s, visits to National Parks increased steadily. But then, something curious happened: visits began a decline, equally steady, that continues to this day. What happened?
Two years ago, Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, who first documented this pattern, stirred up a lot of attention and controversy by showing that the rise of electronic entertainment (time spent on the internet, playing video games, and
watching movies) was a remarkably strong statistical predictor of this downward trend in park visits. They concluded that:
“we may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people’s appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson 1984) to ‘videophilia’, which we here define as ‘the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media’. Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversiy conservation.”
Indeed. That study rightly generated major attention and controversy. Commentators suggested several possible reasons why the national park visitation data might not be representative of nature recreation as a whole, incluing declining market share of parks relative to other outdoor lands, decaying park infrastructure and staffing declines, etc.
Now comes a new paper from Pergams and Zaradic that tackles these criticisms with a wide variety of new data sources. Building on their initial data from American national parks, they examined data from national forests, state parks, and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as visits to national parks in Japan and Spain. The quality of data varies among these sources, but all show downturns in recent decades. As do the trends for fishing and duck hunting licenses. In summary, “most reliable long-term per capita visitation measures of nature recreation peaked between 1981 and 1991, are declining at approximately -1.2% per year, and total to date -18% to -25%.”
The graph below shows the time trends for visits to American national parks (NPV), national forests (NFV), state parks (SPV), BLM lands (BLMV) and foreign parks (JapanNPV, SpainNPV).
This news is not just a sad reflection on the declining state of American life, although it is assuredly that. It is more fundamentally disturbing for several reasons. Scientific studies show that direct experience with nature in childhood is the best predictor of environmental awareness and commitment to conservation among adults. And, as Nature Conservancy scientist Peter Kareiva notes in a commentary on the Pergams and Zaradic paper, “A poor understanding of basic natural history is sure to undermine our ability to solve environmental probems.” Perhaps this growing disconnect from nature is one reason that, although 80% of American say they favor stronger standards of environmental protection, they consistently rank the environment in last place after the economy, health care, Iraq, social security, taxes, and even moral values. Now that’s going to undermine our ability solve environmental problems.
This is a tough problem — at the moment I sit here writing this, hunched over the computer, my 10-year-old son models my behavior by hunching over his own computer, playing with animals in Zoo Tycoon II rather than hunting frogs and bugs and what not in the backyard (I do admit to some relief that he is playing with animals, even virtual ones, rather than the more popular activities of destroying virtual planets, gunning down virtual cops, or committing virtual grand theft auto). What’s a parent to do?
It’s time to mobilize. The Children and Nature Network (C&NN), founded and inspired by Richard Louv’s revolutionary book, Last Child in the Woods (see also here), has emerged as a growing national alliance of people dedicated to healing our broken bond with nature. The network has spawned local chapters all over the country.
We need one here in southeastern Virginia (and in your community, wherever you are)! C&NN has just released a Community Action Guide (PDF here) to get one off the ground. It’s well worth reading.
Let’s get started! Who’s ready to commit?
[Original source: Pergams, R.W. and P.A. Zaradic. 2008. Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA. 4 February 4 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0709893105 (download PDF here)]