Press Release

A Deeper Look at National Parks

Nov 29, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC—The writer Wallace Stegner called our national parks “America’s best idea”—the description that Ken Burns used as the title for his PBS documentary. Now, over a hundred years later, national parks in the US host more than 330 million visits a year. And as they face lengthy waits at entrance stations, vehicle parking shortages, and congestion on trails, more Americans fear that the park experience may be diminishing, and many policymakers grapple for solutions.

Now, a team of researchers from Resources for the Future (RFF) have posted a new report called Nature-Based Recreation: Understanding Campsite Reservations in National Parks. It analyzes 1.5 million national park campsite reservations made through recreation.gov over the period 2014–2016.

In their study, the authors, RFF Senior Fellow Margaret Walls, Fellow Casey Wichman, and Georgetown University graduate student Kevin Ankney, specifically identify four key issues and thoughtfully draw conclusions about each. In brief:

  1. How full are campgrounds in the national parks by individual park, season, year, and day of week? The researchers saw variation across parks, with some parks full to the brim almost every day of the summer and others quite full on weekends but less so on weekdays. This result suggests that experimentation with changes in fee structure—more variation in fees across parks and by season and day of the week—is worthwhile.
  2. How far in advance do people plan for camping trips to national parks, how far do they travel, and how long do they stay? The data show that many reservations are made early but then canceled and picked up by others at the last minute. Could an increase in the cancellation penalty more efficiently manage sites and generate funds for the parks?
  3. How does visitation vary specifically looking at the role campground availability and park proximity play in camping visits? Most people visit parks relatively close to where they live and stay only two nights; longer trips are extremely rare. The researchers analyzed the data on national parks only—other camping options such as state parks and national forests might fill the gap for many people—but the findings highlight the importance of having nature-based recreation opportunities close to home.
  4. Using information at the zip code level, how does the distribution of income of campers in national parks compares with that of the nation as a whole? According to the researchers, it appears that national park campers have incomes very slightly above those in the US population. The differences are small, but this suggests that care should be taken with any fee changes.

Read the full report: Nature-Based Recreation: Understanding Campsite Reservations in National Parks.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

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Unless otherwise stated, interpretations and conclusions in RFF publications are those of the authors. RFF does not take institutional positions.