I have not posted in awhile because I was on personal travel to Canada to visit with my significant other and his family. Since returning to Logan I have been busy catching up on work and preparing for the Fall semester. However, this Friday evening I took a break from work and went out to see “Rise of Plant of the Apes.”
The movie stars James Franco as a scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimers and Andy Serkis as Caeser an unnaturally smart chimpanzee from Franco’s lab. Also playing a large role in the movie, which takes place in San Fransciso, is Muir Woods National Monument. Muir Woods becomes a playground for Caeser and the NPS unit also becomes a safe haven for the apes towards the end of the movie (trying to avoid spoilers here). Once scene that occurred in Muir Woods irritated me slightly as it showed visitors doing something that I thought was forbidden in the park unit; walking their dog on the trail (yes, I imagine that walking a chimpanzee in the park is most likely also illegal – but I could overlook that while watching the movie). Upon returning home from the theater, I went to the Muir Woods National Monument website and found out that, indeed, pets are not allowed on trails in Muir Woods. However, through my research I found something else much more interesting then park regulations – since the movie was released the unit has seen a record number of visitors.
Before 9/11, the National Monument regularly reached over 5,000 visitors per day. However, travel dropped off after 9/11 and the staff considered 4,000 visitors a day to be a busy day. For the past two years, the park unit has not had a single day over 5,000 visitors. Since the release of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on August 5th, there have been over half a dozen days (as of August 16th) where visitation reached over 5,000 and the shuttle to the National Monument is carrying almost 200 more passengers per day on the weekends than before the movie release. Obviously the fact that Muir Woods National Monument was featured in a large Hollywood production has been positive for this particular park unit; increased visitation means more fees collected and thus more operating money for the park. However, other park units have found that being featured in a movie can bring headaches.
January of this year the movie “127 Hours” was released. “127 Hours” ended up being nominated for an Oscar for best pictures and – coincidentally – also stars James Franco. This time, Franco plays Aron Ralston, a hiker who gets stuck while attempting a slot canyon in a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park. Blue John Canyon, the canyon where Ralston gets stuck, has seen increased use since the story of his escape (he cut off his own arm with a dull knife) was release and the publishing of Ralston’s book about the event.
However, in this case, increased use is a bad thing. The visitors attempting to recreate Ralston’s hike are often unprepared or not skilled enough to successfully navigate the technical slot canyons in this remote area. Rescues in the area have been increasing since Ralston’s accident and since the movie’s release. It has gotten to the point that the local sheriff’s office has posted signs warning visitors of the dangers of the hike – titling the signs “127 hours”. Additionally, in the past, the sheriff’s office has not charge individuals for the costs of their rescue. However, with so many people needing to be rescued – individuals will not be charged for their own rescue; “People that go down there unprepared will be charged for their extrication,” Ehlers – the spokesperson for the sheriff’s office has said.
Featuring National Park units in the media – be it movies, books or in the news – is an excellent way to increase awareness of the treasures in the National Park System and potentially increase appreciation and stewardship of these places. However, there can be unintended consequences to increases exposure; consequences both good and bad. Although increased visitation is beneficial as far as fees are concerned, increased visitation can also lead to safety issues and resource protection issues. Managers should be aware of the ways in which media is featuring their park unit and be prepared for possible backlashes – good and bad.