Inside Story

By John Weier

Two years ago, when Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic declared that people were forsaking U.S. national parks to play video games and surf the Net, their research sparked an intense and wide-ranging debate. Pergams and Zaradic had declared that declining per capita visits to U.S. national parks meant people were losing interest in nature and, in turn, conservation. But some doubters wondered whether it was fair for them to infer that Americans were less invested in the great outdoors simply because per capita attendance was dropping at national parks. Others argued that the attendance declines occurred not because people didn’t want to visit the parks, but because they were overcrowded and poorly maintained.

To address these critics, Pergams and his coauthor, Patricia Zaradic, went back to work. In a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they take their original analysis a step further, using a broader swath of data to show that people are indeed taking fewer trips to nature reserves and participating in fewer outdoor activities. The implication is that the public’s appreciation of nature is diminishing and that this could hamper future conservation efforts.

A professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Pergams has been examining Americans’ rapport with nature for nearly a decade. In their 2006 paper in the Journal of Environmental Management, he and Zaradic detailed a 16-year drop (1987–2003) in per capita visits to U.S. national parks. In search of a cause, they found a strong correlation between the declining visits and the increasing hours Americans devote to electronic media.

Pergams and Zaradic’s new research takes this analysis a step further. Instead of relying only on national park numbers, they tracked down attendance records for U.S. national forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, and state parks. They also ferreted out information on camping, hunting, and other activities and looked into park visitation in Spain and Japan.

What they found is that, on average, people are spending less time on nearly all these outlets. For example, U.S. participation in activities such as fishing and duck hunting has seen a per capita decline of one percent per year for at least 25 years. Meanwhile, state parks have experienced per capita attendance drops that, on a percentage basis, are similar to those occurring at national parks. And the trend extends beyond America’s borders: since 1991, per capita attendance at Japanese national parks has fallen by nearly the same percentage as at U.S. parks.

Meanwhile, people have been flocking to electronic activities, and Pergams believes the virtual world is what’s drawing people away from nature. His logic relies on the assumption that people regard conservation and outdoor recreation as luxury items that compete with video games and the Internet for people’s excess time. It follows that individuals who devote more time and resources to electronic media will have fewer resources to spend on outdoor activities.

The long-term consequence could be that natural areas are even more threatened than many now believe. As children spend less time outside, Pergams fears, they will become less interested in saving the great outdoors—an idea supported by several psychology studies. “If humans continue to become more disassociated with nature, we can only expect them to increase their destructive behavior [toward nature] and decrease their support of conservation efforts,” he said.

Pergams, O.R.W. and P.A. Zaradic. 2008. Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(7):2295-2300.

Photo: ©Nathan Watkins/iStock.com

 

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