The average visitor to some of the nation’s parks and wilderness areas is getting grayer, prompting a new emphasis on getting young people to unplug and head outdoors.
“Without a generation of kids who have had good experiences with national parks, then in a very short amount of time, we may not have enough people who care about national parks to keep them going,” says John Hayes of the Dunes Learning Center at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
For the National Park Service, developing life-long connections between the public and parks — especially for young people — is a priority from now until its 2016 centennial, reports USA Today.
That could be a challenge: A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that people ages 8 to 18 spent an average of 7½ hours a day on digital media. Last month, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that three times as many Millennials — born in the 1980s and ’90s — as Baby Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.
A “big concern” of the National Park Service “is maintaining 21st-century relevance,” says James Gramann, a Texas A&M professor writing a book on people-park links. Visitors ages 16 to 24 are most under-represented, he says.
The aging of visitors affects wild places across the United States:
- The average age of a visitor to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area was 26 in 1969, 36 in 1991, and 45 in 2007, says a March report by the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s the same people. They got attached, and they keep going back,” says co-author Bob Dvorak, a Central Michigan University professor.
- The average age of out-of-state visitors to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks in 2011 was 54, says the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.
- At California’s Death Valley National Park, 49 percent of spring visitors in 2010 were 46 to 65 years old.
Overall visits to national parks fell in 2011 for the second year in a row. The National Park Service counted 278.9 million visits in 2011, down about 1 percent from 2010.
Some parks have plenty of young visitors. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, attracts about 10,000 students a year, Superintendent Dale Phillips says. “It’s important that we teach them early,” he says.
Realizing that the future of the park system is at stake, parks and wilderness areas across the nation are working hard to attract younger visitors, USA Today reports. They want to create a new generation of stewards.
“It isn’t cool or interesting to young people to visit parks,” says Ron Tipton, senior vice president for policy at the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “We’ve got to find ways to bring them into parks … and keep them coming back.”
Safiya Samman, director of conservation education at the U.S. Forest Service, says once youngsters visit wilderness areas, “They want to come again, because it inspires them and gives them a connection that they were missing.”
At the non-profit Dunes Learning Center at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, children stay overnight for flashlight-free night hikes. No electronic devices are allowed, Executive Director John Hayes says.
“It’s a profound experience” when youngsters are immersed in nature for the first time, he says. “The underlying goal is to give kids an experience that develops their relationship to a point where they care” about parks’ future.
A survey of 62 students who visited the Dunes recently found 44 had never been to a national park site before, Hayes says. All 62 wanted to return.
California’s Joshua Tree National Park offers lessons that meet state educational standards and helps pay for buses to get students to the park, says Joe Zarki, chief of interpretation. A smartphone app is in the works.
An outdoor adventure “becomes something they remember when they’re 18 or 35,” Zarki says.
At San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, a junior ranger program and Get Outdoors fair attract young visitors, Ranger Al Remley says. “We need to engage that next generation in preserving our heritage,” he says.
Jason Morris of NatureBridge, a San Francisco non-profit group that takes students to national parks, says it’s vital to connect them with nature when states are closing parks because of budget constraints.
“If we don’t have a constituency that cares … I’m afraid those places would be whittled away,” he says. “What would happen if we sold off Yosemite? We can’t take the short view.”
The nation behaves well when it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt