Oregon Neutral In Shift From National Parks
December 15, 2006
By SUSAN PALMER
Visits to national parks are down nationwide – 20.3 percent in the past decade – but not in Oregon.
While National Park Service officials fret about ways to attract more visitors, Oregon’s state and national parks are either holding their own or seeing a surge in attendance. Thank current events, lottery dollars and population growth, recreation experts say.
The biggest visitor bump in the state’s national parks occurred at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park just outside Astoria, where attendance increased 26.2 percent from 1995 to 2005. That jump coincided with a flurry of films, books and interest in the bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery expedition, said Jill Harding, chief of visitor services at the park.
At Crater Lake National Park, attendance figures have held steady in the past decade, hovering around 450,000 total annual visits.
“It’s a very traditional spot that people come back to on a regular basis,” said Michael Justin, Crater Lake spokesman, noting that the park is a popular destination for Oregon residents.
At John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, visitor numbers are down 2.4 percent in the past decade but up 26 percent since 2001.
Only at Oregon Caves National Monument do visitor declines mirror the national numbers.
Those who track the statistics attribute the nationwide downturn to some long-term trends.
People’s travel habits are different than they were 20 years ago, said Jim Gramann, chief social scientist for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.
People are taking shorter vacations and traveling shorter distances by car, he said.
“The older two-week vacation by car, stopping at national parks along the way, isn’t as common as it once was,” Gramann said. The three-day, closer-to-home outing is the norm.
And there are more leisure options for people than there were 20 years ago – more theme parks, more casinos and more cruise ships.
“We have a lot more choices of things to do,” Gramann said.
Those trends hurt some parks, but help others. The increase in cruise ship visits to Alaska is driving up attendance at Denali and Klondike national parks, he said.
And Las Vegas, the fastest-growing metropolitan area of the country, is responsible for an increase in visits to nearby Zion National Park, he said.
Of more concern are surveys suggesting that young people and minorities are underrepresented in park visits, Gramann said. Park officials are focusing their outreach efforts on those populations, he said.
But short-term events also drive attendance, and in Oregon, gas prices and weather have a big impact, said Chris Havel, spokesman for the state Parks and Recreation Department.
Besides the national parks, 233 state parks are getting plenty of use. Attendance at the state parks has increased by 17 percent in the past decade, Havel said.
Part of that increase is a result of population growth. But part of it also stems from improvements to the parks, thanks to lottery funds that have added enhancements such as more electrical outlets, running water and dump stations for recreational vehicles, Havel said.
In the early 1990s, the state also added dozens of yurts and cabins to the parks, making them more attractive during the off-season, Havel said.
That adds up to a boost in attendance during the spring and fall, he said.
Oregonians also have access to national forest and wilderness areas. While attendance figures are only gathered every five years on national forests, the anecdotal evidence suggests that they are growing in popularity, too, Forest Service officials said.
In 2000, the Deschutes National Forest was the second-most visited national forest nationwide, said Mark Christiansen, recreation program manager for the forest. Only Mount Baker in Washington state drew more visitors, he said.
“You look at the location of a lot of national parks, they’re pretty far from population areas,” Christiansen said. “People have to make a point to be going there.”
Deschutes National Forest is near Bend, which has seen some of the fastest population growth in the state, he said.
Oregonians’ proximity to state and national parks may be part of the reason attendance appears more stable here. But the long-term trends will always be punctuated by short-term spikes, park officials said.
When the famous killer whale Keiko – star of popular “Free Willie” films in the 1990s – was at the Newport Aquarium, Lewis and Clark National Historic Park saw a dip in attendance, Harding said. And when gas prices rise, so do the number of park visits, she said.
The message: What goes up will probably come down. There’s only so long that Lewis and Clark will be able to ride its bicentennial surge, she said.
“We’re going to have to work on reaching out and making it a more attractive destination for different populations,” she said.