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See America First: Public Opinion and National Parks

The National Parks Service is 100 this year. To celebrate, go camping – or take a look back at over sixty years of polling about our national parks.

Vacation plans

The earliest question in the Roper Center archives about the national park system came in 1955. Gallup asked Americans about their intention to visit a national park; only 15% planned to that year. The same survey found that several parks had been visited by roughly a tenth of the population, while others were far less commonly visited.

Americans visit national parks 1955

When asked which park they’d been to in the past four or five years, the highest proportion of respondents (8%) said they had been to Smoky Mountains, while 5% said they had seen Shenandoah, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.

When this question was next asked more than thirty years later, a strong majority of Americans reported having visited a national park in recently. In 1986, a survey for the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors found that 62% had visited a park in the last 5 years. In 1991 68% told the Our National Parks: Preserving A Priceless Heritagesurvey that they had ever visited one. By 2001, the Los Angeles Times found that 72% had ever made a visit, and in 2007 25% told an ABC News/Washington Post poll they visited national parks once a year, 18% every couple of years, and 33% less often–only 22% said they never did so. Most recently, a 2012 CBS News/New York Times poll found 35% planned to visit one that summer.

While clearly reflective of the increase in US car ownership after WWII and easier transportation in general, these numbers also indicate that the national park system is an increasingly-important part of Americans’ recreational lives. In a 2001 Shell Poll, 29% of the public said if offered a free, all-expenses-paid trip to various locations, they would choose “an outdoor attraction such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park”, trailing a cruise at 31% but substantially ahead of a major theme park, New York City, or a spa in the country.

Satisfaction with NPS

The significance of national parks is accompanied by a rare degree of consistent satisfaction with the government’s job in creating and maintaining the park system.  Roper Reports found a 77% highly/moderately favorable view of the National Park Service when the question was first asked in 1983, a level that remained constant at 80% when lasted asked in 1987.  A decade later, Pew found an 85% very/mostly favorable opinion. In 2015, amid widespread dissatisfaction with government in general, Pew still found 74% of Americans holding a favorable view of the National Park Service.  Beginning in 2001, Gallup has asked if the public was satisfied with the government’s handling of “national parks and open spaces.” Sixty-four percent said they were satisfied in 2001, a number that has generally risen and peaked at 73% in 2015.

Priority: conservation

The public has also long supported continuing the process of adding to the park system. In a 1969 National Wildlife Federation poll, 75% said they wanted to see more land put aside for conservation purposes such as parks and refuges. In 1991, 68% said they wanted to see more land put aside for national parks in the future, 26% the same. Only 3% said less. In 2001, however, when given a choice of two possible priorities, 38% said the government should focus on creating more parks, and 55% said upgrading facilities at existing ones. Polls indicate that Americans still prioritize conservation within existing parks. A 2007 ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 79% thought “protecting natural habitats and wildlife” in parks should be a higher priority than “providing public access for recreational use.”

The public has also increasingly supported efforts to keep the parks safe from the risks of energy exploration. In a 1981 GE Survey 51% opposed permitting coal mining in parks wilderness areas, while 44% approved, and a decade later the Our National Parks survey found 82% disagreed that “oil and natural gas finds on National Park lands should be developed since it’s in the national interest.”  More recently, in a 2015 Center for American Progress survey 52% were strongly opposed to allowing oil and gas drilling “on highly valued recreation lands, such as national forests or near national parks”, and 19% somewhat opposed. In a wider sense this is similar to public attitudes about energy production versus protecting the environment in general. The most recently such question was asked by Gallup in 2015. Forty-nine percent said protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of “limiting the amount of energy supplies” against 39% who favored “development of US energy supplies even if the environment suffers to some extent”.

The first land set aside for federal preservation was Yosemite in 1864, and the first national park Yellowstone in 1872.  Today there are 59 national parks in the US, the most recent added in 2013, and 121 national monuments, beginning with Devil’s Tower in 1906. The results of this expansion can be seen in the public opinion polls, as increasing numbers of Americans have come to appreciate the recreational enjoyment and conservation importance of the national park system. Americans are satisfied with how the parks system is run, unusual in this era of rampant dissatisfaction with government, and have made it one of their favorite vacation destinations in growing numbers.

Date Published: May 9, 2016

Outdoor Summer Plans

(I am going to read you a list of summer activities. For each one, please tell me how likely you are to do the activity this summer.) How about [item]? Would you say extremely likely, very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely? AARP 2013

% saying extremely/very likely

National parks data



More questions on
recreation and vacation



Carl Brown is iPOLL Acquisition Manager at the Roper Center.