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Historic Sites
Economic Aspects


Federal Lands
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Division of Responsibility


Educational Opportunities

Recreational Use of Land in the United States

Recreational Resources

The desire of the American people for the kinds of recreation that lands of various types may provide is a natural and legitimate one. It amply justifies public agencies, Federal, State, and local, in assigning lands to recreational use. That this desire is universally prevalent needs no argument—it has been conceded for a long time.

The history of the public recreational use of lands in the United States dates back to the town commons, squares, plazas, and great ponds of colonial times. Though town planners did not give much thought to recreational areas following the close of the colonial period, the movement has gained great impetus since the middle of the last century. New York took the initiative by establishing Central Park, and the Federal Government entered the picture when Yellowstone National Park was created. Today magnificent park systems of certain cities and States conclusively demonstrate both the desires of communities and the attainment of these desires. In their fulfillment is indicated in large measure the cultural achievements and standings of the respective communities.

Social and economic trends indicate a greater need for recreation, and there is a strong and growing tendency toward universal appreciation and understanding of outdoor recreational values. This is well exemplified in the rising protest against the continuing destruction of the Nation's few remaining wildernesses. The trend is in the direction of a great variety of new uses of land and is fulfilling the high motives of those who originally made recreational areas possible.

Since the recreational use of land does not stop with physical rehabilitation, but, in addition, stimulates invigorating mental exercise and cultivates salutary mental dispositions, the possession of which may be determining factors in the quality of life in the community, State, and Nation, it is vital that recreational resources be protected and developed.

It is this broader aspect of public policy which has actuated the Federal, State, and local recreation agencies, while fulfilling their duties as preservers, to render the possessions in their custody enjoyable and culturally profitable to the public. This has resulted in the provision of educational staffs, museums, road and trailside exhibits, and a wealth of informative literature—high attainments in rendering recreational resources culturally profitable and enjoyable.

Editor's Note: since citations for data quoted in this summary section are given the expanded text, they are not repeated here.

The recreational desires of a progressive people, however, are not and cannot be satisfied with what a single governmental agency may provide and administer. A citizen may find congenial recreation in the inspection of various governmental projects and activities. One visitor may stand spellbound at the brink of a canyon, while another enjoys equivalent emotions when looking down upon some huge engineering project.

It seems that the time has come when the concept of our national recreational resources can no longer be limited solely to certain prescribed areas specifically and primarily devoted to recreational use. It must instead, as far as is practicable, comprehend all those resources of the country as a whole which are susceptible of use for recreation. In this concept, lands held as public parks or monuments appear as a subdivision, though a highly important one, of the vast lands which, in greater or lesser degree, can and will contribute recreational satisfaction. Furthermore, if the fullest recreational usefulness is to be derived from these resources, information concerning them should be widely disseminated.

It has been with such a concept in mind that the Federal Government has carried forward its task. Impressed though it has been with the importance of the service which it should render in the field of recreation, it also has been keenly aware that, if recreational lands are to be considered from the standpoint of the total number of persons who use them, and the frequency of their use, then the focal point and the foundation of a national recreational program is within the numerous municipalities and their immediate environs. It is there that the need for publicly provided facilities is greatest, and it is there alone that frequent use, by all for whom these facilities are designed, is actually possible. No other recreational system can possibly be laid out on a basis of such frequency or universality of use.

The users of the recreational facilities to be provided by the States, incomplete though the State systems be, are several times as numerous as the users of the far-flung areas owned by the Federal Government. Upon the States rests the responsibility for acquiring and conserving examples of the native landscape which deserve protection, but which lie outside the field either of the Nation or of the municipalities, as well as places which possess similar distinction because of historic, prehistoric, or scientific features. Every reasonable encouragement and cooperation needs to be given them by the Federal Government in order that they may occupy satisfactorily the place in the national recreational scheme which is properly theirs.

sketch: More Adult Recreation

Recreational Needs of the People

Man is essentially an outdoor animal as far as his biological and physiological needs are concerned. The supplying of means for the satisfaction of these needs among a highly urbanized people is one of the fundamental reasons for the reservation of lands and waters for recreational use. It is one of the laws of the growth of human beings that there is required a considerable measure of activity in forms expressive of age-old urges, impulses, and instincts. Juvenile and youth delinquency, and other antisocial expressions are, without question, partly the result of society's failure to recognize this principle.

Population in the United States increased from 4,000,000 in 1790 to 123,000,000 in 1930, but the rate of increase has been declining since 1860. The trend indicates that growth of the population in the future will be small, the estimate for 1980 being 170,000,000. The total birth rate has been falling steadily, which means that the proportion of older people in the population is growing larger. This trend has been accentuated by a steady decline of the death rate. Present indications are that the proportions of native whites will increase faster than Negroes, and that the proportion of foreign-born whites will decline.

Population is distributed very unevenly throughout the United States, as is well illustrated by the fact that the Mountain division has 3 percent of the population and 28 percent of the total land area, whereas the New England, Middle Atlantic, and East North Central divisions, comprising only a little more than 13.7 percent of the total land area, have almost 48.7 percent of the total population. Study of population distribution is helpful in revealing where particular attention should be given to reserving lands and waters, if the people are to have adequate and frequent opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Recent trends in urban and rural population have an important bearing upon recreational land problems. For instance, in 1890 the rural population made up 64.6 percent of the total population, while in 1930 it was only 43.8 percent. At the same time, the last census showed that the large cities have increased in area, but not in density of population within their older sections. Three-fifths of the total population increase occurred in five well-defined groups of cities which had but 26.2 percent of the Nation's population in 1920. Today a total of 47,395,009 inhabitants, or approximately 38 percent of the total population, is crowded on one-fifth of 1 percent of the total Land area of the United States.

Recreational needs and requirements during the past 70 years have been affected profoundly by the tremendous shift from agriculture to industrial, commercial, and professional occupations, because of the resultant concentrations of population.

In 1930 only 21.3 percent of all gainfully employed persons over 12 years of age were engaged in agriculture, lumbering, and fishing, whereas manufacturing and mechanical industries, trade and transportation, and clerical employment accounted for 57.5 percent.

In 1890, 18 percent of all children from 10 to 15 ears, inclusive, were gainfully employed. When the new code regulations went into effect in 1933, the employment of this age group was practically abolished. Since school attendance of children and young people occupies only 6 hours a day and 180 days a year, it behooves the public to provide adequate recreational facilities for them, so that their leisure time may be utilized beneficially.

With the continued development of labor-saving devices and scientific management of industry, opportunities for gainful employment will be fewer. There has been a steady decline since 1910 in the percentage of males in all age groups gainfully employed. The decrease in opportunities for gainful employment will likely affect more and more the children, young people, and old people of both sexes. Between these two extreme age groups there will be a group of gainfully employed persons working shorter hours.

This situation—fewer persons gainfully employed and shorter hours of work for those who have employment—creates an unprecedented and critical problem which demands farsighted planning for use of the increased amount of leisure at the disposal of the public. This leisure can be made of value in raising the physical, cultural, and spiritual level of the American people, if proper provision is made for its use, and it is guided into proper channels. Failure properly to provide for it throws the doors wide open to every antisocial influence, since the truth of the old saying "the devil always finds some work for idle hands to do", is as true now as it ever was.

In addition to planning for the recreational use of leisure, it would appear highly desirable to devise ways and means of using a measure of this enforced leisure in various forms of public service, as is being done now through the Civilian Conservation Corps, and also in developing home handicraft arts.

All of these conditions have given rise to the public responsibility for bringing about an adjustment between nature and man, out of which have come the present provisions and new plans for varied types of recreational areas.

map: The Geography of Recreation
(click on image for a enlargement in a new window)

Geography of Recreation

Humanity is distributed without any orderly relationship to recreational resources. When population is favorably situated with reference to recreational resources, it can only be considered a matter of fortunate accident. Recreational planning cannot be successful unless it takes into account the discrepancy between the distribution of populations and recreational resources.

Variety of elevation is an important factor in the recreational value of lands—the mountains are always eagerly sought. Water resources—lakes, streams, waterfalls, bays, and oceans—are a factor of the utmost significance in the recreation scheme, both because they constitute such a great part of the beauty of the outdoor scene, and are highly valuable for active recreation. On almost every recreation area the greatest concentration of use occurs in the immediate vicinity of the water. It is a happy circumstance that 45 percent of the total population, or 55,000,000 persons, live within 55 miles of the sea coasts and Great Lakes.

It is axiomatic that pleasurable outdoor recreational experiences require favorable climatic conditions. Rainfall, sunshine, humidity, and temperature all have their effect upon the pattern of recreational geography.

Flora and fauna provide the living interest, without which no recreational area is complete. Forested areas, of course, rank high in the order of preferment, and natural abundance of plant life of many kinds is always an asset. In the geography of recreation, the variety, abundance, and the distribution of fauna are important factors. The smaller forms of wildlife, particularly the birds, add materially to the value of the smallest recreational areas, such as downtown parks and residence gardens. Hunting and fishing are among the leading, if not the greatest, of American outdoor recreational activities. They are factors which exert a great "pull" on population.

While all these factors have an important bearing on recreation from a national viewpoint, they have an equally important recreational significance considered from a regional, State, county, or metropolitan viewpoint, the principal difference being that the range of choice progressively decreases as the size of the unit under consideration decreases. Other things being equal, that area, whether national park, regional park, State park, or metropolitan park, which has favorable natural factors of the highest order available within the area be served, will exert the strongest "pull", and will tend to the greatest extent to refute the validity of any scheme which is based on a fixed pattern of distribution.

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Last Modified: Fri, Sep. 5, 2003 10:32:22 am PDT

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