A new study indicates that fewer people are engaging in outdoor recreation than in previous years.
Anyone who has ever tried to book a room near Yellowstone National Park in August knows that natural places can get very crowded. But biologist Oliver Pergams says those crowds can hide an important trend: Every year, a smaller percentage of Americans are fishing, camping or engaging in other nature-based activities.
Since the late 1980s, the percentage of Americans taking part in such activities has declined at slightly more than 1 percent a year. The total effect, Pergams says, is that participation is down 18 percent to 25 percent from peak levels.
Pergams teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For several years now, he has been collecting outdoor head counts kept not only by national parks, but also by state and local parks, the U.S. Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management and commercial polling firms.
"We've got data for hunting licenses, fishing licenses, three different data sources for camping and backpacking and hiking," Pergams says.
All of these data sets go back at least 20 years, and they show that a few outdoor activities have remained popular. One in 10 Americans has gone hunting every year for the past several decades. And the overall number of backpackers, while relatively minuscule, has actually risen slightly.
But those are the exceptions, Pergams says. Participation in almost all other activities, like fishing and visiting parks, has headed sharply downward since the early 1990s.
"It ends up all these things were very, very similar. The peaks in visitation ... were around the same time; the losses since the peaks have been about the same percentage. So they are all acting pretty much in the same way," Pergams says.
He says environmentalists should be concerned by this broad change. He says that it's true, in part, that people who don't visit natural places might not fight so hard to protect them.
"It's perfectly possible to be in favor of something but not necessarily to support it fully," Pergams says. "You have polling on presidential issues, for instance, and though everybody says they support the environment, when you come down to it, almost all the other issues rank ahead of it if you ask people to compare them."
The study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, speculates that the declines could have a variety of long-term causes, ranging from rising gas prices to increases in the amount of time spent in front of video games and TV screens.
Mark Barrow, a Virginia Tech environmental historian, says the changes described in this paper are potentially historic. He says it's worth remembering that Americans have changed their attitudes toward nature many times over the centuries: It has been seen as evil, something to be tamed, a source of wealth, and as what Barrows calls a romantic playground.
In that view, Barrow says, experiencing wilderness was "connecting with something divine, something that was primal and part of who you were as a culture."
But Barrow says this study makes him wonder whether a new era may be dawning, one in which the wild is a place best seen at zoos or on plasma-screen TVs.
He says there may not be a title for our current attitude toward the outdoors. But he suggests "the era of mediated nature."
"It clearly seems to be the case that we seem to not need to experience the natural world in the ways that we did previously," Barrow says.
The new study says Americans might not be the only people changing in this way. Numbers from Japan show similar declines in things like park visits.