Are National Parks More Popular Than Ever?

Author: 
Published: 
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
chart: National Park visitation per capita

Last year, America’s national parks received more visits than ever before. A record-setting 292.8 million people visited national parks in 2014, breaking the earlier park attendance record set back in 1987.
 
But a lot has changed since 1987. Population has increased considerably, and so have the number of parks. How do the new visitation numbers compare once we consider these other factors?
 
The chart above shows national park visitation as a share of the overall U.S. population. Since 1987, U.S. population has increased by approximately 75 million people. Measured on a per capita basis, national park visitation is about 20 percent less than it was in 1987. As a share of the population, park visitation has gradually declined almost ever since.
 
This decline is even more pronounced once we consider the growth of the National Park System. Since 1980, more than 70 national park units have been added to the National Park System. Yet these additional parks do not seem to be attracting more overall visits per capita.
 
As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2016, there is much emphasis being placed on its ability to attract people to parks—especially millennials. Park visitors can play an important role in funding parks in their next century and helping to address the agency’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog. But these data suggest that the National Park Service still has much work to do.
 
Type: 
Shawn Regan is a research fellow and the director of publications at PERC. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News, Reason, Regulation, Grist, and Distinctly Montana. Shawn is...
Read More > More Articles by Shawn Regan >