We've known for some time that if people are to care about natural areas as adults, they need to experience them as children.
We also know that the best way to get people to behave in an environmentally responsible manner is to make sure they get to enjoy extended periods of time in natural areas, preferably in the company of a mentor.
These things just make sense, don't they?
That's why a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is so troubling. The title says it all: Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation.
The authors, conservation scientists Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Patricia Zaradic of Bryn Mawr College, may be familiar to you. They wrote a widely discussed 2006 paper in which they pointed to a "steady and consistent" decline in per-capita visits to US national parks since 1988 and suggested that a fundamental shift was taking place in our society -- a shift away from what E. O. Wilson termed "biophilia," an appreciation of nature, and toward "videophilia," a new focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.
Four variables, three of them electronic, explained 97.5% of the decline in park visits, Pergams and Zaradic wrote: time spent on the Internet, time spent playing video games, time spent watching movies (both in theaters and at home), and oil prices. When gas prices go up, they wrote, people drive, and drive to national parks, less. And as time spent on electronic media increases, park visits decrease.
These things make sense to me, too, but the paper proved to be controversial. Readers argued that factors specific to national parks, not videophilia, must have contributed to the decline (that is, historic admission fees, decaying infrastructure, fewer interpretive staff, etc.); or that other natural areas (BLM lands, for example, where you can ride around on snowmobiles and ATVs) had taken market share from national parks; or that the decline in national park visits was an exception to an upward trend in participation in outdoor activities.
Uh-uh, Pergams and Zaradic thought. They hypothesized that national park visits are a good proxy for how much people are visiting nature in general and that a little extra research would reveal not only similar longitudinal declines in visitation to other natural areas but also reduced participation in other nature-related activities.
The paper published today describes what the researchers learned when they tested their hypothesis.
It's not encouraging. Not only have visits to national parks declined, but so too have visits to Japanese national parks, US state parks, and US national forests and per-capita duck stamps and fishing licenses.
The last time the national forests saw per capita visitors as low as 2002, the researchers write, was almost 40 years earlier.
"The longest and most complete time series suggest that typical declines in per capita nature recreation began between 1981 and 1991, are proceeding at rates of -1.0% to -1.3% per year, and total to date -18% to -25%," write Pergams and Zaradic. "Rather than being an anomaly restricted to National Parks, our results suggest a fundamental and pervasive decline in nature recreation."
A decline like this, of course, has obvious -- and dire -- implications for conservation efforts. "We think it probable that any major decline in the value placed on natural areas and experiences will greatly reduce the value people place on biodiversity conservation," write the researchers. "Accordingly, it becomes less likely that attempts to raise public awareness of the current biodiversity crisis will succeed."
The results may be jarring to those of you who have been told over and over that birdwatching is the fastest growing outdoor activity, but they jibe with results published by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in August 2003 -- and largely ignored by everyone associated with the birding industry. (We published them in "Birding Briefs" in our February 2004 issue.) USFWS, remember, reported that a comparison of results from its 1991, 1996, and 2001 estimates showed that birdwatching around the home had decreased, not increased, over that 10-year period:
"Is birding increasing? Despite recent popularization (high visibility within the media and popular culture and increased recognition of the sport within American homes) of birding, past FHWAR Survey results point to a more complicated story. A comparison of results from the 1991, 1996, and 2001 estimates show that bird-watching around the home has decreased rather than increased over that 10-year period (USFWS). In 1991, 51.3 million people reported observing birds around their homes. In 1996 that number dropped to 42.2 million and in 2001 to 40.3 million." -- US Fish & Wildlife Service, Report 2001-1: Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, page 3
The 1996 total is 17.7% lower than the 1991 total, and the 2001 number is 21.4% lower than the 1991 number.
According to the most recent USFWS survey, the number of people who reported observing birds around the home did increase between 2001 and 2006. It rose 3.7% to 41.8 million (page 36). But 41.8 million isn't close to 51.3 million. It's 18.5% below the 1991 high point.
And I probably don't need to point out that 18.5% is within the range of typical declines in per capita nature recreation reported by Pergams and Zaradic, or that 1991 aligns roughly with the decade in which the declines began. -- C.H.