The future of fun.
This is what happened: America has changed, along with its recreation habits, and land-management agencies are attempting to change with it. Seventy percent of our once-rural population is now crowded onto two percent of the land. Our living habits are changing accordingly, to the point where public open spaces are becoming less a vacation destination than a kind of cultural escape hatch. Growth in the number of working couples and in the length of the average workweek have made the old-fashioned two-week vacation increasingly rare. "Extended long-distance vacations are being replaced by more frequent close-to-home recreation trips," reports a 1990 Forest Service study.
Despite the shrinking leisure time, having fun is still a very big business.
American consumers (let's forget for a moment that quaint term visitors) went to rural forest, range, and water areas 2.7 billion times in 1987, and in 1986 they spent $132 billion on outdoor recreation. To keep up with the changing demand, the feds alone spent $1.4 billion on recreation areas in 1980, up from $75 million just two decades before. Elsner who can speak knowledgeably about market research. Over the past few years, the federal land-management agencies have used surveying techniques borrowed from big business to divine what Americans' needs for outdoor recreation will be in the future. Indeed, the 1974 Resources Planning Act (RPA) requires such future-gazing on the part of the Forest Service. Every 10 years the agency must come up with plans for its national forests for the next half-century. The latest were completed last year. Besides setting targets for such tangible commodities as timber and water, the service must figure out Americans' future needs for pleasure.
The task is not unlike the market research conducted by American corporations. "Recreation customers are the same people who buy bread at the grocery store," notes a 1990 recreation analysis that the Forest Service conducted to support its latest RPA assessment. "They decide to recreate or not in a manner very similar to how they choose which brand and what amount of bread to purchase."
That's not to say that the process is infallible. Remember New Coke? The fact is, though such far-sighted planning is necessary, planning perfection is impossible, and federal analysts are the first to admit it. "We don't have a crystal ball," says Eisner. Many of the trends that most influence public demand for outdoor recreation are indirect and unpredictable, covering everything from the national divorce rate to computer technology.
A good way to judge the ability of officials to predict Americans' recreation behavior is to see how well they did in the past. A century ago (or a mere two RPA time horizons), recreation wasn't a high-volume use of most federal lands. Even the national parks were created first for stimulating national patriotism," as a 1916 report puts it; second, for "furthering knowledge and health;" and third, for keeping upscale tourists (in those days, there wasn't any other kind) from spending their money in Europe. That al changed after World War I, with the advent of the automobile. Suddenly, the nation's national parks became an attractive destination for road trips. Suddenly, park officials had to worry about paving roads and developing bathroom facilities and parking spaces. And without any warning without even congressional authorization, for the most part-federal officials found themselves in the recreation biz.
I ask you: could a market researcher-even if such a species existed in those khaki-colored early days-have predicted th advent of the motorcar? Not to mention the shocks to the agencies' system that were to follow: depression and war for example, or the unprecedented growth in consumer wealth.
By the middle of the century, it didn't take an economist to tell that the demand for outdoor recreation was rapidly outstripping the supply. In 1958, Congress created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (with the barbaric-sounding acronym ORRRC) to recommend some solutions. The group was also charged with the first major attempt to predict Americans' leisure-time future, assessing recreation needs to the year 2000. The ORRRC recommendations made history, leading to the creation of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in 1963, and helping to inspire federal legislation creating official wildernesses, wild and scenic rivers, and national trails.
Though ORRRC was clearly visionary, its ability to prognosticate would hardly get it on Johnny Carson. Understandably, it failed to predict the advent of hang gliding, off-road vehicles, and snowmobiles, to name a few technological toys. Of the seven fastest-growing current outdoor activities, two of them-cross-country skiing and jogging aren't even mentioned in the original ORRRC surveys.
It's hard enough for planners to keep up with all the changes, let alone make trustworthy predictions. Not so long ago, Americans vacationed only in the summer; now they vacation year-round, taking frequent long weekends instead of the traditional two-week hiatus. The total number of visitor-days in federal recreation areas increased by just four percent from 1977 to 1987, but the number of visits grew by 30 percent during the same decade. In other words, Americans are not so much communing with nature as they are taking tiny nature breaks.
Well, breaks, anyway. The nature part sometimes gets short shrift. According to the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, people rank natural beauty, crowds, toilets, and parking as the most important factors in deciding on recreation areas. The number of backpacking trips in wilderness areas dropped by half from 1977 to 1987. The camping trip is being replaced by what might be called the "tourism quickie." Robert Trotter, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, did a study a while back on visits to Wupatki National Monument in Arizona. He found that only 20 percent actually made the one-third-mile walk around the central prehistoric pueblo ruins that are the park's reason for being. The average visit was 20 minutes, including the requisite pit stop and visit to the gift shop.
Even trips to the wilderness are becoming less distinguishable from other kinds of tourism. "There are so many people who think they're in Disneyland or a zoo," Dan Sholly, who at the time was chief ranger in Yellowstone National Park, told me during a visit to his park several years ago. In an average year the National Park Service spends $15 million picking up litter and writes more than 25,000 traffic tickets. Who could possibly have envisioned that 50 years
So how well will the RPA analysts make out in the next half-century? Will visitors to the Moon National Park read the old predictions and snort? Although Forest Service officials like to refer to their prognosticating as "futuring," their forecasts don't sound very futuristic. From the standpoint of number of trips, they say, the most popular outdoor pleasures in 2040 will be -are you ready for this glimpse into the next millennium?-sightseeing, walking for pleasure, driving for pleasure, pool swimming, picnicking, day hiking, family gatherings, bicycle riding, photography, swimming in streams, lakes, and oceans, observing wildlife, visiting historic sites, and camping on what th Forest Service calls "developed sites." Oh, sure, there's mention in the RPA recreation analysis of snow surfing, jet-pack backcountry camping, jet snow skis, and personal all-terrain hovercraft," bu the analysts don't take that stuff seriously.
They expect the biggest growth to be in day hiking and downhill skiing, with the number of trips for these activities doubling in the next 50 years. The areas of least growth, they say, will be off-road driving and motorboating. The officials forecast "shortages" in opportunities for such activities as sightseeing, pool swimming, and crosscountry skiing. The East-with its relative paucity of open space-will suffer the most, they predict.
The RPA recreation assessment names 11 factors that influenced these predictions:
1) An aging population that is retiring earlier. Older people tend to prefer developed campgrounds to the backcountry. They're willing to travel farther and stay longer than younger visitors. Many of them like to travel in style, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, which says that RV ownership has increased by 50 percent among household owners aged 55 and older since 1980.
2) A decline in the amount of time Americans take off. Between 1973 and 1988, the average number of leisure hours fell by 37 percent, according to surveys by Louis Harris and Associates.
3) Population growth. The rate is going down; nonetheless, this nation will add 90 million by the year 2040, predicts noted forest economist Marion Clawson. Though this factor would seem crucial to any estimates about future recreation needs, it is notoriously difficult to predict. Clawson estimates that analysts who extrapolated from previous birth rates in 1945 would have guessed 20 million fewer births than have actually occurred. In other words, the baby boom would have blown up any straight-line population predictions. What wars, depressions, overseas famines, and social mores will influence future family plans? Who knows?
4) Increasing immigration.
5) More women in the workforce. More women means more working couples, which means less time for camping trips in national forests.
6) Fewer extended families, more households with single parents. What has this got to do with recreation? Again, plenty. Time is short in single-parent families. And researchers say that outdoor skills such as hunting and camping tend to be passed on among family member-extended family members such as grandparents.
7) Higher education levels. Highly educated people tend to hunt less, snowmobile less, and cross-country ski more than less educated people.
8) Greater health-consciousness. Although there seems to be no incipient shortage of pleasure-driving couch potatoes, researchers say the numbers of trail joggers, pleasure walkers, and cross-country skiers are burgeoning.
9) Baby boomers entering middle age.
10) Baby boomers taking longer to marry and have children. Fewer families means fewer family trips.
11) Rapid economic changes. The Reagan era shrank the middle class substantially, and it is the middle class that tends to visit federal recreation areas.
I'd like to add a few factors of my own-not because I have any expertise in the matter, but because the editor of this magazine pays me for this sort of thing:
Changing agency philosophies, especially within the Forest Service. The service is going through a rapid, and occasionally painful, transition from a commodity-dominated philosophy to one more oriented toward people. This change of heart can't help but affect the quality and quantity of recreation opportunities in the future.
The federal deficit. Land management is among the few budget items that can be cut. SO, naturally, it will be. This vulnerability to parsimonious congressmen can't help but affect recreation quality and quantity.
The declining relative importance of federal recreation areas. Americans' propensity to take shorter, more frequent trips places more stress on urban recreation sites, which tend to be managed by state and local governments. People already spend three quarters of their away-from-home outdoor time in state and local parks. Federal lands get just 14 percent of the visiting time; private lands get the rest. One of the biggest planning headaches for recreation analysts is the small woodland owner, who controls a third of a billion acres of forest; 77 percent of that land is off-limits to the public, and the number of no-trespassing signs is increasing.
*Liability laws. They're a major reason for those no-trespassing signs.
* Changing work patterns. Sociologists say that in 1989 20 million Americans composing 17 percent of the workforce held part-time as opposed to full-time jobs, and the number is growing. The length of the workweek could conceivably decline again, as it did from the 1920s to the 1970s, as working couples balance child rearing and careers.
Communications technology. Computers, car faxes, and modems make it possible for increasing numbers of professionals to work wherever they happen to be at the moment. Someday, business and pleasure may be combined to the point where families can go for long trips to recreation areas without sacrificing work.
All this good guessing comes to nought if the government can't do anything about it. The Forest Service sees a need for many more tourist accommodations, including hot water, flush toilets, and paved, handicapped accessible trails. But it already has put off several hundred million dollars' worth of maintenance on what it already has.
At the same time, says Robert L. Anderson, a resources consultant and AFA board member in Montana, there seems to be renewed official interest. "I see an increase in the appreciation of recreation values,- he reports.
Recreation comes relatively cheap, at least in environmental terms. Impacts on natural systems from most outdoor recreation and wilderness uses are minimal compared to more consumptive uses such as lumbering or mining," says the Forest Service in its RPA analysis. Recreation is one of the multiple uses that allow managers to keep their options open over the very long term. And as anyone wise will tell you, keeping your options open is the best way to plan for uncertainty. "How many of those wholehearted conservationists who berate the past generation for its short-sightedness in the use of natural resources have stopped to ask themselves for what new evils the next generation will berate us?" asked Aldo Leopold in the October 1925 issue of this magazine.
Leopold wasn't one of the Forest Service's greatest visionaries for nothing. AF
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1991|
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