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Counting on Visitors: A Review of Methods and Applications for the National Park Service’s Visitor Use Statistics Program

Pamela S. Ziesler, David Pettebone


The longest series of visitor use statistics for federal lands is managed by the National Park Service and goes back to 1904. The objectives of the National Park Service’s Visitor Use Statistics program are to provide statistically valid, reliable, and uniform methods of collecting and reporting visitor use data for each independently authorized unit administered by the NPS. The program addresses recreation visit counts and hours, non-recreation visit counts and hours, and overnight stays. Estimating visitor use is a complex and difficult task. The NPS estimates use at 384 park units that accommodate many different types of public access. Large iconic parks generally have entrance stations where automated vehicle counters can capture use and the NPS currently has about 960 traffic monitoring stations that employ standard vehicle counting technologies. However, there are many units where visitors enter a site in a manner where an automated counting system cannot be used. Parks with “porous” boundaries or extremely remote areas still defy reasonable visitation estimates, often because of the extreme expense involved in collecting data or conducting visitor studies. For example, urban park units such as The National Mall in Washington, D.C. and Golden Gate NRA in the San Francisco Bay area or rivers such as Niobrara NSR and Chattahoochee NRA require other approaches to estimate visitation and may include sampled counts, fixed estimates or counts with expansion multipliers. The success of the NPS Visitor Use Statistics Program is due in large part to the collaborative effort between park field staff and the national office to develop official count procedures that are consistent with NPS definitions. By providing approved options for counting and estimating visitor use, national program managers allow parks the flexibility to choose among a suite of tools that suit their unique park visitation situation. Although the initial purpose of collecting visitor use statistics for the NPS was to satisfy legal and policy mandates, the NPS and public have found a variety of other applications for these data. Data from the NPS visitor use statistics program have been used to inform NPS managers about infrastructure and capacity needs, as indicators to estimate site specific uses within a park, as a key input for visitor spending effects models, and for planning by local communities and businesses. Although the premise of collecting use statistics is to fulfill legal mandates, the utility of these data for management, planning and understanding people’s relationship to NPS managed lands highlights the value of these statistics.

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Visitor use statistics; public use statistics; visitor use; national parks; use estimation; recreation use; dispersed use; proxy counts

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