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Consumer Reports

Fewer people visiting national parks, Park Service says | (KRT) VALLEY FORGE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK On a balmy spring day, runners and walkers, sunbathers and picnickers join tourists on the winding trails and wooded hillsides of Valley Forge National Historical Park.

Yet the number of visitors has been steadily declining - and is expected to keep dropping over the next two years, a recent National Park Service study reports.

In 2002, the park attracted 1.15 million visitors, a decrease of 5.8 percent from 2001. Projections by the Park Service forecast a 16.5 percent decrease in 2003, continuing down to 834,016 visitors in 2004 - more than one million fewer than the 1,901,406 people who visited the park in 1997.

Valley Forge - the Revolutionary War campsite in Pennsylvania where George Washington's troops spent a harsh winter - is not the only national park showing a decline in tourism. Across the country, attendance at many parks - typically the smaller, lesser-known ones - was down 2.1 percent in 2002, despite park officials' forecasts that U.S. tourism would rise after Sept. 11.

Analysts blame bad weather, high gas prices and a general economic downturn for the decline. Extensive forest fires in the West didn't help either, as people witnessed the flames on television and decided they would be better off staying home.

"People are being a heck of a lot more cautious," said Jim Spring, president of Leisure Trends Group, an industry analysis firm based in Boulder, Colo. "They aren't taking those long expeditions out to the parks in the West. Since 9/11, people have been more interested in things like reunions with their families."

Terrorism fears have also influenced international travelers, who have avoided coming to the United States, Spring said. The Park Service does not estimate what percentage of its visitors come from overseas.

The parks reporting the best attendance have been those close to major metropolitan areas and at historical sites, which tend to appeal to the aging baby boomer population, Spring said.

For example, Independence Hall in Philadelphia reported a 5.6 percent increase in attendance last year. Although the Park Service projects that will drop slightly this year, people at Independence Hall believe the opening of the National Constitution Center in July will give them a boost, spokesman Phil Sheridan said.

The biggest hurdles that the urban park has faced this year have been the war with Iraq, the big snows during the winter, and the Code Orange alert, Sheridan said. Already, numbers for 2003 are lower than those posted last year.

"We can't say whether the economy will be a plus or minus," he said. "We're not revenue-sensitive because no one pays."

For the most part, officials at the individual parks don't worry much about statistics - until it's time to ask the government for more money, analysts say.

"It's much easier to justify a budget increase when you can show more people come into your park," said Tom Wade, an analyst for the National Park Service in Denver. "Conversely, it's hard to argue for the same budget if 50 percent of your visitors go somewhere else."

At Valley Forge, officials say the park needs a new system of counting visitors to reflect what it contends is a hidden popularity.

The park counts visitors three ways - the people who walk through the visitors' center; those who stop by Washington's Headquarters; and those who drive through the park, spokesman David Moore said.

That method does not take into account people who use the park for running or jogging, or those who hike along the Schuylkill River Trail, which skirts the northern end of the park's boundaries, he said.

"We haven't updated the way we do our counts in 10 years," Moore said.

Valley Forge has suffered its share of problems over the years. In 2002, it was named one of the nation's 10 most-endangered parks by the National Parks Conservation Association, because of cash shortages and development pressures.

Butch Street, a Park Service analyst, blames the Valley Forge decline on traffic problems that have plagued the park over the last few years. "People do avoid road construction because it's such a pain," he said.

There are bright signs for Valley Forge that could prove the Park Service projections wrong. Currently, money is being raised for a $100 million National Center for the American Revolution, which would sit on 21 acres of parkland. The project is scheduled to be completed by July 2006.

And early this year, Valley Forge was taken off the endangered park list because the Park Service is negotiating to buy private lands set aside for development and is working on traffic issues with the state Department of Transportation.

"What's important to us is the quality of the experience that people have here," Moore said.

And while the numbers may be lower, the tourists still come. On a recent May afternoon, an elderly couple from Washington snapped photos outside the visitors' center while a conventioneer from Cleveland meandered through the exhibits and high school students on their senior trip from East Hampton, Conn., filled the gift shop.

The day was fruitful for the Buonocore family of Millerstown, Pa., who took their two home-schooled children, along with their 3-month-old baby, on a tour of the park.

"The national parks offer you so much," said Nancy Buonocore. The family intends to visit park sites in Washington and Virginia as her 9-year-old son studies the American Revolution, she said. "It's well worth the time," she said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services