Counting--and counting on--visitors


If you’re weary of modern ills like private companies collecting your information in the name of the almighty dollar, maybe you’ll want to escape to a wilderness area for the weekend. There’s no barcode scanner, and no one to meddle in your business. You are free to move about undetected and get messed-up 127 Hours-style with no nanny state looking after your ass. However, as I’ve learned while doing research for our upcoming travel issue, it’s important to do a certain amount of accounting for people on public land. Accurate numbers help land managers request money from Congress and advocate for the value of public lands, both economic and, in my case, psychological.

The policy results of America’s first big recreation survey were incredible. In 1958, Congress recognized that post-World War II enthusiasm for outdoor leisure was leaving a mark on public land, so it funded a commission to study recreation trends, documenting the popularity of outdoor recreation and activities like fishing, swimming, sightseeing and picnicking. The National Recreation Survey of 1960 was the foundation for outdoor recreation policy in the U.S. And it wasn’t just words on paper. It inspired the establishment of wilderness areas, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and the National Trails Systems, which includes the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. The survey also led to the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, which funds local, state and federal parks, and land conservation. Today, the National Recreation Survey lives on as a phone survey called the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, documenting how what constitutes a good time in nature has changed since the 1960s—something we’ll be covering in the travel issue.

The National Park Service is especially diligent at recording long-term visitor data. Park data go all the way back to 1904. The Park Service’s method relies on counting cars going into the park and then making adjustments for things like the average number of people in each car, employees that enter and leave the park, and commuters that are just passing through. Park employees used to count cars in the parking lots, but now 1,900 automatic traffic counting devices do that job.

Since each park is unique, counting visitors is bit of an art. Butch Street, the NPS’s Denver-based data analyst, says that people assume everyone enters a park through one entrance and exit, but it’s not that simple. A lot of people can visit Grand Teton National Park with out ever passing a booth and Biscayne National Park in Florida doesn’t even have roads. In the 1980s, he created visitor-counting guidelines to keep things as consistent as possible from park to park and year to year, and wrote an individual database program for each of the 300-some parks so rangers with calculators weren’t required to keep track. He also went to many parks to strategically place their traffic counters, so they could avoid over or under-counting cars.

According to Street, his system is the world’s only source of real-time recreation data and his website gets about 4,000 hits per week from researchers all over the world, gear companies like REI and Coleman trying to understand their buyers, and even the federal highway administration looking for traffic data to better engineer roads. The annual visitation reports are also great for discovering park service lands where you can avoid crushing masses of tourists.

Good visitor estimates are especially important when agencies go to Congress and request funding for trails, roads and other kinds of management, as are estimates of the economic impact of visitors to National Parks -- which are substantial. It’s also something that's about to take a big hit, now that budget sequestration is, as of press time, looking darned close to inevitable. Under the required across-the-board cuts, the National Park Service will lose 5 percent of its budget, and that’s going to limit the public’s access to public land. For example, impacts could include staff shortages leading to closed campgrounds and hiking trails, and delays in plowing open roads in parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier will be delayed. That means those traffic counters are going to see fewer cars at the height of the tourist season, and park communities will see less spending.

So, while number crunching is essential to keeping parks functioning, there’s also no substitute for having enough money to run a park efficiently. And that requires a functional Congress.

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of Olympic National Park by the author. Photo of people lining up to climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park courtesy of the National Park Service.

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