- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

A federal study predicts fewer people will trek through the national parks this year, a finding one analyst blames on the sagging economy, a rise in unemployment and high gas prices.

Outdoors industry officials hope the projection is wrong.

“My forecast is down. Nobody likes that,” said Butch Street, a National Park Service analyst based in Denver who tracks park usage. “Visitation to the Park Service is greatly affected by the economy. I can’t imagine the economy in the next three months is going to get pretty good.”

The National Park Service forecasts a 1.4 percent drop from its 277.3 million visits in 2002. The national parks have so many visitors that a big jump in usage would be required to have an effect on Mr. Street’s percentages.

“Our base number of 288 million takes a lot to be swayed,” he said.

The most-visited parks have famous bottlenecks: They get jammed when people most want to use them, making it hard to pack in more tourists.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an example.

In October’s leaf season, when the woods in North Carolina and Tennessee are ablaze in gold, red and green, the traffic backup to get into the park can be five hours, Mr. Street said.

However, people who make their living on wilderness visitors are talking up the prospects of a good summer.

Less-famous state and regional parks can show a good time to people who feel the marquee national parks are too busy to bother visiting, outdoors industry officials say.

As they say that, they cross their fingers.

Drought and forest fires kept a lot of people off the land last year, said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder, Colo. “Americans did not know public lands were open when they were open,” he said. “They would see raging infernos and say, ‘I’m going to take my kid to that? No way.’”

If the wilderness gets a break from calamity, this could be a good year for campers and hikers, Mr. Hugelmeyer said.

The prospect is mixed, however. During the winter, the East Coast was blessed with drought-breaking snow and rain, but much of the West, especially through the Rockies, remained dry.

The outdoor recreation industry does have international tension on its side, said Jim Spring, president of the industry analysis firm Leisure Trends Group in Boulder. “Because of the political and international situation today, people are going to be sticking closer to home,” he said. “We anticipate this summer people will be headed for the woods.”

Michael Hodgson, co-publisher of GearTrends in Grass Valley, Calif., which also tracks the outdoors market, expects “an increase in the average Joe and Mary who want to have a good time outdoors.”

The industry has told itself this before and has been wrong. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, analysts predicted an increase in outdoor tourism. The theory was that Americans would find wild bears less frightening than terrorists, and seek their summer shelter in the all-American wilderness.

The National Park Service reported a 2.1 percent decrease in visitation in 2002. Where did the people go? “There was a lot of nesting going on after 9/11. They stayed close to home, did home improvements,” Mr. Hodgson said.

This year will be better, he believes. “Day hiking, weekend backpacking trips and paddling will continue to see an increase,” he said. “How much remains to be seen.”

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