A recent contribution by a team led by Ass. Prof. Susan Moore of Murdoch Uni. to The Conversation discussed the issue of attracting people to parks. I have shortened it a little.
Their argument is that protecting biodiversity is partly about getting public support for parks, which means getting people into the parks. Parks express the values of their time – in the 19th century, they were about recreation for people, now they are more about biodiversity, though some groups want to change parks’ purposes by bringing in cattle, or building upmarket hotels or introducing logging.
Getting people to understand the conservation value of parks will only happen if there are many visitors: people vote. All public institutions, like schools and hospitals, need public support to attract funding. People who go home with good experiences of parks will be strong advocates for their proper funding, and help resist pressures to allow grazing and hunting. Connecting with nature and escaping the urban environment provide positive experiences people will value. Nature tourism is growing fast worldwide and in Australia contributes about $23 billion to the economy annually. Visitor numbers are declining in places such as Uluru, and this matches similar data from USA, Canada and Japan – as a percentage of population, parks are declining as destinations. It might be the relative attraction of playing with computers and other urban pastimes, and migrants’ unfamiliarity with the beauties of parks.
Declining park visitation means reduced knowledge of the environment and reduced interest, along with mental and physical health issues. Potentially more serious than allowing cattle or hunting is loss of political support for real park protection from dwindling visitation. Parks must work with the tourism industry to develop programs which bring in more visitors while protecting biodiversity, so visitors don’t “love parks to death”, but find environmentally friendly activities to engage in. Developing social media apps can help people find parks, follow trails, identify flora and fauna, enter sightings on reporting forms, book camp-sites.
The cohort of park visitors is far larger than the number of people agitating to use parks as extractive resources, and is very diverse in age range and occupation– but they are politically inactive. This can be changed. Park staff need to develop skills to enthuse visitors about the importance of protecting conservation values. People passionate about parks need to work with park visitors to spread the passion.