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."

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