Changing visitors spell uncertain future for National Parks

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has an interesting piece on changes in the demographics of visitors to National Parks and what this means for the future of those parks. Writer Angie Herrington talked to Shawn Benge, the superintendent of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. and Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Benge notes that white males come to Civil War parks to learn about the battles and “who shot who” and may be following the footsteps of their ancestors. This is not the case with minority visitors, who Benge speculates might be more interested in the reasons the war was fought.

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Miller comments that Dollywood and other attractions near the Smokies roll out new and improved attractions every year, while wilderness parks are committed to preserving the same places forever. That makes them less attractive to people with nano attention spans.

Civil War parks in Tennessee and elsewhere should see a surge of visitors in coming years with the 2010 sesquicentennial of the Civil War along with a surge in baby boomers who will be retired by that time, but after that it’s hard to say how attractive those parks will remain. Technology can help interpret the Civil War, especially anything accessible to cell phones, which young people use more than anyone else.

The nature parks face different demands. The article states that camping in the Smokies is down 20 percent over the last 20 years. Children tied to video games and computers are less interested in the outdoors than their parents, and minority folks in Tennessee and other places do not seem to be as interested in wilderness experiences as white families.

In one sense a drop in visitation is good news: the fewer visitors, the more pleasurable the parks will be for those of us who love them. On the other hand, our national parks are underfunded now. If politicians sense that even fewer people care about parks, they may cut the dollars even more.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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