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Obesity – not ‘Videophilia’ – Responsible for Decline in National Park Visits
July 12, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
No wait, maybe it’s soccer – or pork. Washington Post’s “Vital Evidence” column clueless on National Parks study.

Given that dvd’s have all but doomed “videos” to obsolescence, you have to wonder about research that coins a neologism that resuscitates an obsolescent technology. This was our first reaction to reading “Videophilia' Keeps Americans Indoors” in last week’s “Vital Evidence” column in the Washington Post.

Where’s the evidence that people are still watching videos? There have been interesting reports about professional photographers turning back from digital to traditional film, but it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of couch potatoes drawn passionately back to cassette tape.

But “videophilia” turns out to refer to "the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media ,” which, in its “growing popularity” among Americans “could be the death knell for tourism at U.S. national parks according to a study in this month's edition of the Journal of Environmental Management.”

And just when we’d pried people away from reading books and watching television! Hold on, isn’t television an electronic medium?

According to the Washington Post, Oliver R.W. Pergams, a biology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Patricia A. Zaradic, a research associate at Stroud Water Research Center, analyzed national park visits, which,

“grew steadily from the 1930s until 1987, when they peaked at an average of 1.2 visits a person a year. But visitation dropped by 25 percent over the next 16 years, prompting to explore what accounts for the decline.

The two scientists determined that 97.5 percent of the drop could be attributed to increased time Americans spend watching movies at home and in the theater, surfing the Internet and playing video games, as well the cost of gas. In 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours than in 1987 watching movies, playing video games and using the Internet.”

When one massive cultural shift is used to explain another massive cultural shift, extreme caution is needed; one could, after all, explain that the reason we eat so much less pork than we did 20 years ago is due to the arrival and popularity of the Internet, which would be absurd. In other words, the mere fact of a correlation doesn't mean the brute, mechanical workings of causation. And the glaring problem with the Environmental Management study is that the researchers considered only a small number of factors as possible explanations for the per capita decline in park visits, namely,

  • Average hours per person per year spent watching television in the US
  • VIDHRS Average hours per person per year spent watching home movies in the US
  • THTHRS Average hours per person per year spent watching movies in theaters in the US
  • GAMHRS Average hours per person per year spent playing video games in the US
  • INTERHRS Average hours per person per year spent on the internet in the US Statistical abstracts of the USA
  • OIL Inflation-adjusted (to 1996 $) domestic crude oil, year-average
  • FUNDING Inflation-adjusted (to 1996 $) federal budget actual outlays to the NPS/area of all NPS properties
  • AT Number of hikers completing all 3500 km of the Appalachian Trail/total US population)
  • FORTRAV Inflation-adjusted (to 1996) $ spent on foreign travel/total US population
  • INCOME Median family income (family households category)
  • VACADAY Mean number of vacation days per employee per year

Five out of the eleven factors were vidophilia-type explanations and nine out of 11 of the items they chose were correlated with decreased park visits. Thus five out of nine correlated factors were electronic (and some of the other four were factors that didn’t explain much, such as an increase in extreme sports as measured by hiking a particular Appalachian trail).

The way this analysis is structured, there is no reason to suppose that all the reduction in park visits is due to increased oil prices. But that would still be missing the point: the authors gave no consideration to other factors, such as increased adult and child obesity, the increased number of theme parks, malls, soccer leagues, and other summer activities for children, increased congestion, cheaper air fares – there are a huge number of plausible factors that could be correlated with decreased park visits, not least decreased park opening hours and services due to budgetary cutbacks (for instance, the Oregonian reported on June 24 that campfire programs in Olympic National Park dropped from 229 in 2002 to 138 in 2005 due to ranger shortages).

Moreover, the increased time on internet etc is, in part, replacing other similar activities that we did in the 80s but that are no longer as relevant and not necessarily replacing a park visit, for example:

  • E-mail has replaced phoning and meeting with people
  • Surfing the Internet has replaced going to the mall and reading the newspaper or magazines
  • Electronic games have replaced game rooms, pool rooms, dungeons and dragons, and other sedentary recreational Activities, especially among people in early 20s
  • DVD and home theaters have replaced watching videos and going to the movie theater

As a consequence, it’s hard to understand what this study accomplishes. But rather than discuss the kind of “vital evidence” that shows the study is largely meaningless, the Post had to chicken-little the findings by explaining what it all meant:

These trends worry the professor and advocacy groups such as the Nature Conservancy, which consider regular park visitation key to building a strong constituency for environmental preservation. Past studies have shown that spending extended time in nature helps foster what the two authors call "environmentally responsible behavior."

"If people are less interested in nature, they're going to become less interested in conservation," Pergams said. "That's my concern and worry."

Dare we suggest that 273-million visits in 2005 is hardly a sign of a disappearing constituency? Or that the best means of preserving wilderness areas – which is the mandate of the National Park Service – is to restrict the numbers of people going there? Or that the Post’s vital evidence column is a pointless journalistic exercise if reporters and editors are not going to think a little bit harder about the kind of “evidence” they see fit to print?