Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

American and Canadian National Park Agency Responses to Declining Visitation

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

American and Canadian National Park Agency Responses to Declining Visitation

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 1911 and 1916, James Harkin and Stephen Mather, directors of the new national parks agencies in Canada and the United States (U.S.) respectively, faced the common challenge of guiding the development of their fledgling park systems. Two key issues seemed to almost immediately appear in both agencies. First, both leaders assumed public and political support for protected areas was essential for the new park agencies to survive and flourish (Lee, 1968; Mackintosh, 1991; McNamee, 2009). Consequently, both aggressively sought to attract the public to the parks, assuming public appreciation would follow, which would ultimately lead to increased political support through increased funding and expansion of the fledging park systems and bureaucracies (Sellars, 1997). Over time, this assumed relationship between use, appreciation and support was institutionalized into a fundamental truth for the Parks Canada Agency (PCA) and the National Park Service (NPS). As Warner (2006, p. 13) noted in reference to the PCA, "Visits were designed to foster appreciation for the need to preserve wilderness, and therefore create the conditions for a popular support base to maintain parks."

The second issue was a result of the shared legislative terminology used to create the two agencies. The dual mandate (aka "preservation versus use" debate) embedded within park legislation demanded that the agencies both provide for public use of the parks as well as protect the parks in perpetuity. However, conflict between the dual mandates simmered in the background for decades while successive administrators focused on the more immediate task of building visitation. Pritchard (1999, p. 59) suggested that, "To Mather and his associates, there was no conflict between preservation of natural resources and human use of the parks. . . . Mather and Albright predisposed the NPS toward emphasizing tourism first and placing other ideas and agendas further down their list of priorities." The preservation versus use debate would not become a primary concern until after the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s, when environmental groups and a nascent scientific analysis of the ecological and social impacts of increasing park use challenged park agencies to address this issue.

By the 1970s, the political environment in which the park systems and agencies operated was also changing. Government policies in the U.S. and Canada were increasingly affected by the global political movement toward neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005). Neo-liberalism, often called "Reaganomics" in the U.S. or "Thatchedsm" in Britain, was the major shift in political thinking that replaced the Progressive Era philosophy under which national park systems were established. Rather than relying on government like the progressives, neo-liberals advocated maximizing individual freedom through the unfettered operation of the free market. They argued that government should simply provide an institutional framework that ensured strong property rights, free markets, and free trade (Harvey 2005). Under neo-liberalism, national parks were viewed as services and "marketized"; that is, moved from full public funding to a market-based operating system that involved greater reliance on user fees, marketing, outsourcing, and public-private partnerships (Crompton & Lamb, 1986; Lehmann, 1995; Crompton 1998; Shultis 2005). Government bureaucracies like the NPS and the PCA were seen as economically inefficient; neo-liberals believed that increasing their market-orientation could help deliver services more in tune with public tastes and preferences (Rosenthal, Loomis & Peterson, 1984; Crompton & Lamb, 1986). As customer satisfaction became the arbiter of successful park management, neoliberalism shifted management's emphasis toward current use, and the 1980's saw significant expansion of visitor services and commercial opportunities within national parks (Lowry, 1994).

Despite these political and bureaucratic changes, the pervasive assumption of ever increasing demand for parks remained intact within both agencies. …

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