Record numbers of visitors are flocking to the nature in the National Park Service's Centennial year—but is the boom a blip in the stats, or the mark of a new generation falling in love with the parks?
Ever since the National Park Service’s beginnings 100 years ago, visitors have craned their necks back to gaze up at El Capitan, encircled Old Faithful to watch its reliable burst and peered down into a maze of sandstone canyons. But just last year, the number of people marking these rites of passage increased by millions as the NPS kicked off its Centennial celebrations. The accompanying media buzz, as well as campaigns crafted to draw a younger and more diverse generation of nature lovers, appear to be working: Some 57 NPS units set all-time visitation records in 2015, and 227 set 20-year records.
“There’s this ongoing national conversation about parks, and that got us to 307-plus million visits last year,” said Jeffrey Olson, public affairs officer with the National Park Service. “And we’re running 3 percent ahead of that record this year.”
“A certain momentum has started,” agreed George Land, public information officer for Joshua Tree National Park (which tallied a 27 percent increase over its 2014 visitation). “There’s no doubt that the Centennial helped it, but it’s going to continue.” Besides the hoopla around that milestone, rangers also point to a number of other factors bringing so many more cars through their gates: cash-strapped Millennials turning to camping for affordable entertainment, a generally more adventurous contingent of travelers, low gas prices, the implementation of fee-free days, and even presidential visits (President Obama had already been to two by the end of June).
These factors mean the crowds are expected to keep coming in the near future. But is this outpouring of love for the parks a passing fad—or a tide that will carry the parks into the next 100 years?
Keeping the Momentum
If one word unites efforts among the parks as they look to the future, it’s “relevancy,” said Olson.
“The main goal of the NPS Centennial is to connect with and create the next generation of park stewards and advocates, and the way we do that is to reach other demographics,” said Emily Davis, public information officer for Grand Canyon National Park. So last year, the NPS introduced the Find Your Park and Every Kid in a Park programs to do just that.
The Find Your Park campaign strives to acquaint social media-savvy Millennials with the NPS’s variety of destinations and encourages them to create photos and videos of their own experiences in the national parks, tagging them with #FindYourPark. They’re not trying to recruit aspiring mountaineers; instead, they’re offering a welcoming, lower-key approach to these parks, right down to a how-to guide for “glamping” featuring teen actress Bella Thorne. So far, it has been a success: NPS staff estimates that the campaign has reached 25 percent of its targeted Millennial audience.
Every Kid in a Park aims even younger by offering an annual parks pass to every fourth grader (and family) in the country. Parks have distributed thousands of the passes in the first six months since the campaign launched last September, and numbers are expected to climb through this summer’s peak visitation months. The goal, Olson says, is to make the National Park Foundation-funded program permanent.
Beyond targeting young people, the NPS is also rolling out the welcome mat for minorities. That effort is particularly visible in some of the recently established national monuments, including Cesar Chavez, Pullman, Stonewall, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad and Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers, which recognize icons of civil and labor rights movements. Centennial event organizers have partnered with local Native American tribes to reconnect those populations to the parks, and this year, parks will host more than 100 naturalization ceremonies, allowing newly minted U.S. citizens to spend their first day as Americans in the nation’s best idea.
The park service also reached out to the Greening Youth Foundation to craft the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative (HBCUI), which connects minority students with summer internships in national parks. That initiative has grown from its 2012 launch with 10 interns to 48 students at 38 sites this summer, in part to mark the Centennial. “The National Park Service is committed to protecting all of America’s history and culture, so why not get these young people to be part of telling that history, and to become the next generation of leaders when it comes to conservation and cultural preservation?” said Jasmine Ward, senior program manager for HBCUI.
Historically, the audience that comes to national parks is mostly white, Olson said, and “the face of America just isn’t that way anymore. But that’s the face of most national park visitors and that’s the face of the workforce in the NPS, so one of our huge goals is to change that. We want visitation to look like the face of America—diverse.”
Introducing a new generation to the parks is more than a nice-sounding ideal: The very future of the NPS depends on it. The more Americans connect with the parks, rangers hope, the more motivated they’ll be to advocate for and protect these lands—and to support elected representatives who will continue funding them.
Boosting The Bottom Line
The NPS’s success or failure to attract a younger, more diverse audience base will affect a lot more than the parks themselves. Booming interest in national parks ripples through the rest of the economy—particularly in the outdoor industry, where analysts have seen almost parallel upticks in, for example, campground attendance and tent sales. Sales of camping equipment in particular have been up robustly in recent years, according to The NPD Group, a market research company.
Tourism outfits and local gear shops also win when NPS visitation spikes. Fringe benefits include millions of dollars pouring into nearby communities in the form of hotel rooms, gas for vehicles and dinners out. A National Park Service analysis found that the 307.2 million visitors spent $16.9 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park in 2015. Outside the immediate vicinity of the entry gates and echoing through the national economy, the report charts a total reach of $32 billion, with $1.7 billion going to recreation industries and $760 million to retail establishments.
But Will They Keep Coming?
While young families and Junior Rangers (more than 800,000 earned their badges last year, up from about 671,000 the year before) indicate more kids are coming through the door, and the bump in Millennial camping is promising, it’s too soon to tell whether we’re really raising lifelong campers and hikers. But there’s reason to expect we might be, said Matt Powell, VP of industry analysis for NPD: Just think of those Depression-era parents who scrimp and save like they’re still in the Depression.
“The values you learn at a very early age never leave you,” Powell said. “This generation clearly indicates an affinity for being outside, supporting the environment and sharing things with their friends, so I think there will be some permutation of this for a long time to come.”
This story first appeared on p. 20 of the Day 2 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.