Nature vs Nintendo: Video games or national parks

Are future national park trips for America's youth likely to be on-line virtual experiences rather than the real thing? A University of Illinois at Chicago ecologist says there may be cause for concern.

Oliver Pergams, research assistant professor in biological sciences at UIC, reports in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Environmental Management that a rise in at-home entertainment activity, such as playing video games and surfing the Internet, corresponds with a decline, in per capita terms, in visits to U.S. national parks. Rising oil prices showed a strong association as well. The turnaround began in 1988 after a steady, half-century rise in park visits.

Pergams, a former commodities trader with a longtime interest in macroeconomics and international finance, used Statistical Abstracts data and special data acquired from Mediamark Research to conduct his study, using rank-order correlation and multilinear regression analytical tools.

"Many of the variables were highly significantly correlated with this decline in national park visitation," said Pergams. "Multilinear regression apportions which variables are the most significant in affecting the outcome."

While more than two dozen variables were tested, Pergams said video games, home movie rentals, going out to movies, Internet use, and rising fuel prices explained almost 98 percent of the decline. "It's fairly stunning," he said, but cautions that correlation is not the same as causation.

"This is no smoking gun," Pergams said. "We're showing statistically that the rise in use of these various types of media, as well as oil prices, is so highly correlated with the decline in national park visits that there is likely to be some association."

Pergams ruled out variables such as family income, age, the recent rise in foreign travel, or crowding in the parks as major factors. These variables were tested and shown not to correlate nearly as strongly as home entertainment and fuel prices.

"My concern is that young people are simply not going outdoors or to natural areas, but are instead playing video games, going on the Internet or watching movies," Pergams said. "My longer-term concern is that I don't see how this trend, if it is in fact true, could be good for conservation efforts. But if the trends are correct, perhaps public awareness will lead to some solutions."

Patricia Zaradic, a conservation biologist with the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa., co-authored the paper.

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