Visitors to public lands seek different experiences than in the past

  • Twilight at the rental yurts at Kayak Point County Park in Snohomish County, Washington.

    Brad Mitchell

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."

C C Rosul
C C Rosul Subscriber
Mar 18, 2013 09:18 AM
My two big friendly dogs love to camp and hike. They are well socialized and I clean up after them. We go to Forest Service campgrounds and, increasingly more often, to state and local parks where we are all welcome. We are not welcome at National Parks. The last National Park we visited was Mount Rushmore, where my "boys" patiently waited in the van in underground parking, protected from springtime sun, while I dashed the trail in twenty minutes. Last time I'll even try that. We baby boomers are filling our empty nests with canine kids, and now that we can travel we find our options are limited. I'm just sayin'....
Jean Rohde
Jean Rohde
Sep 12, 2015 10:15 AM
When will you dog people understand that NOT EVERYBODY IS COMFORTABLE WITH STRANGE DOGS! Even though I've had dogs all my life, it is still scary to me when a strange mutt is in my face when I'm trying to enjoy athe day. 'Nuff said.
Bob  U
Bob U
Mar 26, 2013 04:57 PM
A lengthy article on public land use and not one mention of mountain bicycle riders, one of the biggest, growing, human-powered recreational users of these public lands. Omission on purpose?

This group spans generations. They like public lands for nature appreciation, challenge and excitement. They volunteer for trail maintenance quite a lot.

Basically seen as the scum of the earth by many evangelical "environmentalists" as it is a constant battle just to access these PUBLIC lands which many hold-outs from the earlier generations keep trying to legislate bicycles out of access .

Just my $.02 but if you're looking for an enthusiastic, human powered recreational user group who is growing. Then this is a large one.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Apr 02, 2013 02:05 PM
Interesting. Everywhere I go, I see full campgrounds (at least on the weekends), and those spaces are mostly reserved months in advance. Also, in the dispersed camping areas and forest roads, I generally find "an RV under every tree" and a tent pitched on every piece of flat ground within a 1/4 mile of a road. As far as I can tell, the woods are as crowded or more crowded than they have been in the two decades that I have been paying attention.

I would be curious to see counts on number of closed campground sites versus of new sites built, of conversions of USFS campgrounds first to private concession paid camping, and later to advance on-line reservation camping, and of closures of dispersed camping areas, because as far as i can tell, there is in fact a diminishing number of opportunities available, while demand remains high.

In fact, over the last couple years, I had begun to wonder (half-seriously) if the USFS was deliberately restricting the amount of camping available, in order to drive up prices for the advance reservation private concession system.

Now, one thing I do agree is that tastes and usage is changing. There are a whole lot more RVs, large RVs, and people who want hook-ups for their RVs, out there than even a decade ago. But as far as demand goes, I see mainly full campgrounds and highly competitive dispersed site selection.
Kyle Klain
Kyle Klain Subscriber
Apr 05, 2013 12:39 PM
Pretty surprised by two things:

1) Every NP and NM I go to is full of traffic, every campsite is taken, and the rangers look tired. I hardly thing visitation can be that low! Also, trying to get permits for some of the more spectacular backcountry areas is downright impossible.

2) Like Bob, I am amazed at the omission of mountain biking, which I see as the next big recreational activity that will draw multiple generations and people from varying backgrounds into the backcountry. Around here, there's an insatiable appetite for more trails in the FS and BLM lands. What gives?