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Our national parks need visitors to survive

We have to get more people into national parks if parks are to have a future. Flickr/Tatiana Gerus

Despite what many commentators on The Conversation have said, conserving biodiversity in our national parks isn’t the way to save them. Parks need visitors to get vital community and political support.

Parks, like every other institution on this planet, are a social construction. Those reserved in the 19th century reflect the values of those times - health and pleasure for humans. In recent decades, social values have led to a strong focus instead on conserving biodiversity.

New moves to include grazing, logging and recreational shooting are a reflection of current efforts of some groups to re-construct the purpose of parks.

If park managers and other advocates don’t like these moves to change national parks into resource extraction reserves, they have to enlist the support of visitors.

Parks need people

Conserving biodiversity isn’t enough. It is time for a renewed focus on visitors and their needs. Appreciating the full gamut of park opportunities is essential.

We need people in parks, because people vote and parks don’t. Parks are a public institution, like hospitals, schools and prisons, and they rely on public interest and support for funding.

Strong advocacy from park visitors for environmentally friendly experiences, like wildlife viewing, photography, hiking, swimming, canoeing and camping, can counter-balance pressures for environmentally destructive activities such as hunting and grazing.

People visiting national parks can have extraordinary experiences, through witnessing beautiful scenery and connecting with nature, escaping the urban environment, and reconnecting with family and friends. Promoting these experiences is essential for the political and financial support of parks.

Park visitors also matter economically. Tourism accounts for about 10% of GDP internationally. Wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation (both largely centered on protected areas) are two of the fastest growing sectors. In Australia, the nature-based tourism sector contributes an estimated $23 billion to the economy each year.

But visitor numbers to landmark national parks such as Uluru are currently declining. Recent data from Australia, Canada, the United States and Japan shows visitor numbers to parks are static or declining on a per capita basis.

One potential reason for this decline could be growing competition from electronic media and other more accessible home- and community-based recreation options. Some people find it hard (or think it’s going to be hard) to get to national parks. Recent migrants may not know how or why to visit national parks.

Concerns that fewer and fewer humans are experiencing nature were first expressed in the 1970s. Serious related consequences include declining environmental knowledge and concern (manifested as declining support for parks), the emergence of nature deficit disorder in children, and increasing mental and physical health issues.

The threat of extinction of the park visitor experience is a real possibility. This threat to parks is more insidious than stock grazing or timber removal. With this extinction potentially comes a waning in societal support for parks as we know and appreciate them today.

Park agencies must develop creative, productive partnerships with the tourism industry to protect biodiversity while providing opportunities for visitors at the same time.

Environmentally friendly activity in parks is preferable to possibly destructive activities such as hunting and grazing. Flickr/yewenyi

A visitor focus

By acknowledging that an alliance between parks and visitors is essential for the future of parks, programs and strategies can be put in place to entice visitors and enhance their experiences.

Social media and technology could engage and retain the support of visitors. Apps to help locate parks, find and follow walk trails, identify birds and enter sightings on an interactive data base, or book campsites online, are all simple ways of attracting and retaining visitors.

Enhancing visitor experiences and maintaining biodiversity conservation is a complicated balancing act. Park workers will need further skills development, especially in understanding, providing for and evaluating the visitor experience.

Park visitors come from a very broad cross-section of society, all ages and all lines of work, both nationally and internationally. Politically, park visitors are a much larger group than are those who wish to extract resources from parks. They just need to be politically active.

Ultimately, parks rely on societal support for survival. The solution for parks lies in ongoing interactions between those passionate about biodiversity and those with other interests to construct and re-construct the purpose of parks in the decades ahead. Visitors are a critically important part of this dialogue. They can provide an important counter-balance to more utilitarian interests, such as grazing and logging.

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