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VISITORS TO NATIONAL PARKS DECLINE 2ND YEAR IN A ROW

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Is America's love affair with its national parks fading?

For the first time since the end of World War II, the number of people visiting national parks is headed down for two years in a row.Even this desert park of 2,000 arches, whose visitor numbers jumped 51 percent since 1990, may be down this year, says Park Superintendent Noel Poe.

"We didn't believe it could continue forever," he said. "Maybe we're at that point."

Neighboring Canyonlands, whose growth has been even higher, is also seeing a decline in attendance. And businesses surrounding Arizona's Grand Canyon are accusing the National Park Service of scaring visitors away with stories of overcrowding.

Nationally, visitors to the park system, which includes 332 reporting units ranging from parks to battlefields, was down 2.2 percent through May and initial reports for June and July suggest further drops. Last year visits declined from 274.7 million in 1992 to 273.1 million.

In 1947, the number was 25.5 million.

"The system is struggling to regain the momentum it was experiencing before the floods of 1993," says a Park Service report.

"People are tired of going to overcrowded parks," said Rod Greenough of the Salt Lake City office of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

Don't expect this slight decline to eliminate long waits for parking places. And you will still have to arrive just after daybreak at some parks to get a camping spot.

Parks are operating with reduced staffs because of budget cuts in recent years, and there is a backlog of $2.2 billion in needed maintenance and repairs.

If it's a reprieve, it's not much of one, say Greenough and officials at several parks.

"I'd compare it to a prisoner of war getting a glass of water thrown in his face," said Ken Hornbeck, who assembles and analyzes visit numbers for the Park Service.

Even at a temperature of 103 degrees, hundreds of tourists marched up the trail this week at Arches to look at the Windows, one of the most popular sites in the park. The three NPS employees manning the Arches visitor center are dealing with 2,700 people daily.

Things are no different at Grand Canyon.

"Folks should still be aware that between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day, there are serious parking problems in the more popular areas on the South Rim of the park," said Grand Canyon Superintendent Boyd Evison.

Reasons for the decline in visitations are as numerous as the people asked. Some blame an uncertain world economy while others think vacationers spent time at the World Cup this year.

Some businesses believe measures imposed to control crowds, such as reservation systems, are discouraging visitors.

"It appears that in preparing for the overcrowding of past years, the park service may have actually done its job a little too well," said Brenda Tormo, president of the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

Domestic travel indicators would suggest park visits should be up.

"The indicators that I have, like lodging data, are up 4.2 percent this year," said Suzanne Cook, an economist with the U.S. Travel Data Center in Washington.

Cook said it may be yet another sign of the changing tastes of baby boomers.

It doesn't mean outdoor recreation is down. Recreation consumers just have more choices, including travel to millions of acres of less-crowded public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service. Neither keeps close tabs on visitor numbers.

Many ski areas now cater to mountain bikers in the summer. They can ride up the hill on a lift or gondola and bike back down. Vail, Colo., reports its business is booming as does Brian Head above Cedar City, Utah.

Bike-shop owners in Moab, five miles to the southeast of Arches, say their business remains strong.