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The Opportunity Cost of a Trip to Yellowstone…

By Chris | December 10, 2007

Is all the Wii you could have played if you stayed home. In a 2006 paper, Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic come to the conclusion that the increase in electronic media is responsible for the decline in national park attendance since 1988. That national park attendance was on the decline was news to me. Growing up within a two hour’s drive from Yellowstone, the nation’s flagship national park certainly seemed more crowded every year. When I worked at Mt. Rainier National Park, it was obvious that the parking lot and other facilities were designed for much smaller crowds. And, I remember reading recently that Yosemite National Park was promoting park buses to reduce congestion.

However, per capita, average annual national park visits fell from 1.16 in 1988 to .92 in 2002. That is about a 20% decline in attendance. This is a sharp reversal from the preceding upward trend in attendance since 1940 (see this graph). In their own words:

“Multiple linear regression of four of the entertainment media variables [television, internet, theatre and video game measurements] as well as oil prices explains 97.5% of the recent decline [in attendance]. We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people’s appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson, 1984) to ‘videophilia,’ which we here define as the ‘new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.’ “

The regression between per capital national park attendance and the obvious uptrend in electronic entertainment isn’t surprising. You’d surely find obesity rates negatively correlated to park attendance over this time period as well. I would also have liked to see the authors examine the impact of the price of admission on attendance. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that the rise of electronic entertainment and the attitudes it fosters has contributed to less interest in national parks. Should we be worried though?

National parks and other forms of outdoor recreation are “rival” goods. The more congested a national park, the less serene it is for all visitors. The more anglers fishing a stream, the fewer trout are alive and willing to bite. The more popular a backpacking trail, the more likely you are to find someone else’s toilet paper. The opposite is true of electronic entertainment. By nature movies, video games, and internet content have relatively high fixed costs but very low marginal costs. When I rent the latest blockbuster on DVD, no one is worse off. In fact, when more people consume digital content average costs decline and product variety increases. It’s sad that many people are content to explore only virtual worlds and watch geysers erupt only on the movie screen. But, when I’m catching wild trout on a pristine stream, I don’t mind that competition for this resource may be getting less cutthroat.

Note: I found this article lying on a table in my university library. It’s amazing how how easy it is to get distracted while studying for finals.

Topics: Economics, Environment, Markets, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

One Response to “The Opportunity Cost of a Trip to Yellowstone…”

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