Visitors to public lands seek different experiences than in the past

by Sarah Jane Keller

Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

People who visit Oregon's state parks have a surprising desire to stay in yurts, even booking them months in advance. Eighteen state parks offer 96 "standard yurts" described by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as "really cool" -- equipped with futon sofas, bunk beds and electricity -- plus another 88 that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The yurts rent for $35 to $41 per night, and many of them are pet friendly.

The Oregon agency's website describes a typical by-the-night yurt as "round, filled with comfy furniture, and pointy on top," adding that yurts are "a quickly growing national phenomenon that broke into the public camping scene right here in Oregon." The yurts are so popular that the U.S. Forest Service is also rushing to install them in national forests.

This desire to drive to the Oregon woods or coast to sleep on comfy beds in Mongolian-style tents is just one of the changing trends tracked by Chuck Frayer, recreation planner for Oregon and Washington's national forests. "We're starting to see a shift in use," the 40-year veteran says. "It's not like it was when I was a kid."

After decades of growth, the number of people engaged in recreation outdoors and on public land began to level off or decline in the 1980s and 1990s (see graph below). People appear to have less time, money or desire to venture to the more remote and undeveloped public lands, so they increasingly seek out more convenient outdoor recreation.

A 2008 study funded by The Nature Conservancy with an ominous title -- Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation –– noted a recent decline in various activities, including national park visits, hunting and fishing license sales and camping. Similar studies, along with books like Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, create the impression that Americans are hanging up their fishing rods and backpacks because they'd rather be glued to LCD screens than outside emulating Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Edward Abbey. Everything from the Internet and organized sports to the sagging economy and urbanization has been cited to explain the shifts in how often people visit public land, and what they do once they're out there.

The National Park Service fastidiously documents such trends. Park visitation climbed dramatically after World War II through the 1980s, as large, popular parks like Lake Mead and Glen Canyon national recreation areas (near fast-growing Las Vegas) were added to the system. The decline in the creation of new large parks was one factor behind decreasing visitation, says Butch Street, the Park Service's Denver-based data analyst. But that's not the only reason. Even though park visits have recently crept upward, approaching their mid-'90s peak (partly thanks to international tourists), total camping visits have not rebounded much, and RV stays have continued to decrease, a possible signal that people who do visit parks are spending less time in them. Free parks in urban areas, like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco, help buoy the numbers. As Street says, "If you give people free open space, most people are going to use it."

The U.S. Forest Service doesn't report such long-term trends because the agency has repeatedly changed its methods for counting visitors. But Robert Burns, an outdooor recreation researcher at West Virginia University who's working with the agency's new science-based monitoring system in Oregon and Washington, observes, "What we see in the West is that there are a lot of people traveling shorter distances and traveling for shorter periods of time. I see a decrease in national forest visitation to what we think of as traditional wilderness and deep-dark-forest kinds of settings."

Ken Cordell, a leading recreation researcher in the Forest Service's Southern Research Station in Georgia, also sees that the tastes of Americans are shifting, even as people continue to enjoy the outdoors. Based on telephone surveys, Cordell reports that from 2001 to 2009 "nature appreciation" activities -- like watching or photographing birds and other wildlife -- grew more rapidly than backcountry hiking, hunting and fishing. We're still pursuing wildlife, but now we're more likely to use digital cameras and binoculars. And recreation fads like kayaking and orienteering have some of the highest growth rates. Cordell and his research team also found that "walking for pleasure" and "family gatherings outdoors" are today's most popular activities, enjoyed by about 85 percent and 74 percent of Americans, respectively.

Interpreting statistics is a complicated task, and the recent numbers indicate many different story lines. Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service reported that from 2006 to 2011, the number of hunters actually increased 9 percent -- the first increase since 1975. However, well over half of hunters used private land exclusively -- a worrisome trend for those concerned about public support for the concept of public lands.

Those rebounds don't surprise Cordell, who believes recreation generally follows the economy's ups and downs. Looking ahead, over the next 50 years, his studies predict an overall increase in outdoor recreation, with some activities growing more than others. Per capita participation in "visiting primitive areas," hunting and fishing, off-road driving and snowmobiling will all decline, he predicts, while downhill skiing, snowboarding and climbing will have faster growth rates. "What people choose to do is going to continue to change," says Cordell. "I think that's a major point, because a lot of our management folks have been pretty much focused on some of the traditional activities."

As politicians and advertisers are aware, the country is undergoing a significant demographic upheaval, and no one knows if the next wave of recreationalists will embrace public land. For one, baby boomers are aging into a less active demographic. "They're still very interested in hiking, but they want it to be easier distances," says Frayer. "They like to go on interpretive hikes and (most) importantly they like to be back by 6 o'clock for martinis."

And most people recreating on public land are still white males, a shrinking percentage of the total population. That's why some land managers are working to encourage more kinds of visitors, installing yurts for busy urbanites and making camping and picnic sites larger to attract Latino families on multi-generational outings.

Today, there's a whole ecosystem of options for outdoor recreation, some more intensely connected with nature than others, offering ever more entry points into the outdoors. If a greater variety of people in coming generations do start venturing onto public land,  they're likely to have a good time. Last year, the Forest Service's National Visitor Use Monitoring program found that only about 3 percent of national forest and grassland visitors reported dissatisfaction, while 94 percent were satisfied (77 percent were very satisfied).

The challenge in the future will be keeping those numbers high, as recreation tastes and the public itself evolve. "We need to be able to change with the times," says Frayer. "If we don't, people will be going other places, and we gauge our success by use. If there's nobody coming, then why the heck are we doing this?"

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern whose home base is Bozeman, Mont. There are few things that can keep her away from public land, and writing about science and sometimes yurts are at the top of that list.

© High Country News