Half-million ‘visitors’ to Mojave Preserve is a grossly inflated number
By JIM MATTHEWS
Early this month, the National Park Service released the results on annual visitation to the National Parks and the economic contributions to local economies provided by those visitors going to the parks. For many small communities near National Parks, nearly the entire local economy is based on the tourism to those parks.
The data – and take what follows with a huge grain of salt – said that the Mojave National Preserve had 585,000 visitors in 2016, and that they spent $34 million dollars in the local economies, supporting 490 jobs in the immediate area, with a cumulative benefit to those communities pegged at $43 million.
Are you laughing yet?
Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Preserve find all of that data incredibly funny. The idea that around 1,600 people a day visit the Preserve is laugh-out-loud worthy. Even on a busy weekend – the opening day of quail season would be one of the busiest – you would be hard pressed to find 1,600 people scattered across the 1.6 million acres that make up this wonderful park unit.
One old-timer who lives on private property within the Preserve chuckled that there hasn’t been a half-million visitors since it was created in 1994.
To understand where the numbers come from, you have to dig into the data generated and crunched by the statistics staff of the NPS in Denver. The work is scholarly and peer-reviewed and based on field data collected by vehicle counters on roadways, actual physical counts of the number of people in vehicles, and data on expenditures collected through surveys of business owners and visitors. That information is fed into a model, and it crunches the numbers and spits out visitation and economic numbers.
Cost restraints, however, prevent the NPS from doing independent surveys for every one of the 417 units managed by the National Park Service. The model generated by good data and survey work at a number of major parks is used for all parks.
The problem is that the shoe doesn’t fit at park units like the Mojave National Preserve, and you end up with wildly inaccurate numbers -- inflated numbers in the Preserve’s case.
The first problem is what constitutes a “visit.”
The Mojave Preserve has two major Interstate freeways (I-15 and I-40) passing through the Preserve and at least two major north-south routes that are used by drivers as shortcuts between the major freeways, mostly as the quickest way to get to or away from Las Vegas . But all those drivers who make the vehicle counters go thump-thump on those north-south routes are counted as “visitors.” (Thankfully, the traffic on I-40 and I-15 isn’t counted in the visitation number even though they pass through the Preserve.)
Preserve superintendent Todd Suess pointed out that most vehicle traffic in National Parks is “pass through” traffic, people doing vehicle tours and looking out windows at the sights and wildlife, stopping to take photos, and then driving on. But few other parks have major travel routes that people use simply to get from point A to point B. Roads to two nearby desert park units, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, are the only destinations. When people drive through either of those parks, it is mostly by design, to see the park.
It is pretty obvious, the Mojave Preserve is different when you dig down in the data and compare it to other park units.
For example, the Mojave Preserve has less than 3,000 annual overnight stays in its campgrounds, while nearby Death Valley has 242,000 overnight stays and Joshua Tree had 396,000 overnight stays in 2016. Those are solid numbers and pretty hard to fudge. Since Death Valley has an estimated 1.3 million annual visitors and Joshua Tree has 2.5 million visitors, according to the same report, that means that 16 to 18 percent of the “visitors” to the other two nearby desert parks spend the night in those parks.
Yet, barely a half of a one percent of the Mojave Preserve’s “visitors” spend the night.
Do you think that is right? Or do you think the “visitors” number is way off? Perhaps off by a lot?
If the same percentage of “visitors” at the Preserve spends the night as the other two park units, the actual annual visits would only be 17,000 or so, or about three percent of the reported visitation. Even if dispersed camping, which is allowed in the Preserve, doubled the number of overnight stays to 6,000 that would still only mean the annual visitation was actually around 35,000.
This estimate is probably a pretty accurate number. In the 1980s and early 1990s, just before the creation of the Preserve, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife did a comprehensive survey of hunter use in what would become the Preserve during the fall hunting seasons. The DFW estimated around 2,000 different hunters per year (they didn’t count non-hunting friends and family members) used the Preserve in the fall, and this number remained fairly constant during the 12 years of the survey. Those hunters spend from 5,000 to 10,000 days on the Preserve each year. This means that using the NPS survey data, they likely would have been counted as 5,000 to 10,000 “visitors.”
There were days when the wardens contacting hunters ran across no one to survey, and hunting seasons are historically the busiest times of the year on the Preserve – even today.
Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Preserve have gone for days without seeing another vehicle on the dirt routes. A hunting buddy and I broke down once and walked for nearly 12 hours on a paved road (a paved road!) before a vehicle came by and offered help and a ride into the nearest town. I can’t think of another park where that could happen on a paved road.
The Mojave Preserve staff knows the data is laughable, but they believe it’s not their responsibility to point out the errors to the NPS higher-ups who generate this information. As the second largest park unit in the Continental U.S (only Death Valley is larger), the 40 person staff at the Preserve (down from 52 in the early 2000s) say they have their hands full and can ill-afford to have budget and staffing cuts – which most believe is likely what would happen if the real visitation and economic impact numbers were calculated, especially in the Trump era.
Interestingly enough, the environmentalist-proclaimed anti-Christ, President Donald Trump, has recently signed legislation to increase the budgets for all natural resource agencies, including the National Park Service. He also increased spending on the backlog of “deferred maintenance” projects that have been put on the back-burner for decades. Now parks can begin to fix crumbling infrastructure.
So will the budgets and staff get cut at the Mojave Preserve? Don’t bet on it.
But I have to say that I don’t mind that 500,000 of you a year don’t go out to the Preserve – except to zoom through on your way to Vegas. I love the solitude at my favorite unit of the National Park Service. I do find it disconcerting, however, the NPS reports grossly inflated visitation numbers as fact -- especially when they know the numbers to be outright fabrications.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]