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"Daddy, remember, camping is in tents."

— Clara Gullixson, age 9

Intense, indeed.

Each summer at this time I'm reminded in not-so-subtle ways that the most restful day of a family camping trip is the day you plan it. The second most restful is the day you get home — sore, dirty and knee-bent, thankful for life's simple pleasures such as accessible coffee and pillow-top mattresses.

It's even nice to be back at work, where to get something accomplished you don't have to worry about squirrels getting into the garbage bag or children getting into the marshmallows. And your tasks, no matter how maddening, don't compare with trying to cook pancakes on a slightly sloped Coleman stove or chasing adolescents through the forest holding a container of sunscreen.

But there's something else I'm reminded about — how much my children love it. And it's not because of my cooking.

Earlier this month, my family and I had the good fortune of spending three days tenting it in Yosemite followed by two more at Sunset State Beach on Monterey Bay. Without getting too much in the weeds about all of this, there <CF102>is <CF101>something primal about the way a child takes to the outdoors — to playgrounds where the infrastructure consists only of rocks, sand and fallen logs.

Yes, the kids enjoyed the organized activities such as drifting down the Merced River in a rented raft and strolling through the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But the highlight for my son, no doubt, was his moments of freedom scrambling over the chunks of granite at the base of Yosemite Falls. For my daughter, it was adopting a yellow and black caterpillar and going to great lengths to make a home for it in a leaf-loaded plastic cup. (Purists, fear not, "Fuzzy" escaped to the wilds before departure.) They need this stuff. They crave it.

Long ago, I wrote a column about "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," by journalist Richard Louv. In the seven years since, I don't think I've recommended any book more than this one, particularly to parents.

(Louv was the featured guest on "City Arts and Lectures," on KQED, FM last Sunday, in case you caught it or have a chance to hear a rebroadcast.)

His premise is one I sincerely embrace — that children aren't spending enough unstructured free time interacting with nature on their own terms, overturning rocks, climbing trees and building forts and sand castles. He calls it "nature-deficit disorder."

He suspects, with good reason, that this shortage may have something to do with the rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which now is said to impact 5 to 12 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 18, especially boys.

So what's preventing children from having these experiences? Round up the usual suspects: Video games, organized sports, shorter vacations, the high cost of travel and, of course, the big one: fear. When many of us were children, our moms just told us three things on summer days: Get out, stay out of trouble and be home by dinner.

Now, parents, including me, don't want children out of our sight. Louv notes a study that says the radius around the home that a child is free to roam is one-ninth of what it was in 1970. Parents today would prefer to keep our kids safe in organized activities. Staying out trouble means staying in sight — and staying out of nature.

So is it any wonder why fewer families are engaging in camping? A report released earlier this year found that camping is on the decline in the U.S. primarily because Americans say they don't have time for the outdoors. The report, by operators of private campgrounds and manufacturers of camping gear, found that 40 million Americans went camping for a total of 515 million outings in 2010. That's down about 10 percent from 2009.

National Park statistics show a similar trend. The total number of tent overnights was 3.2 million in 2011, down 24 percent from 1981.

But there's another growing obstacle: The high cost and complexity of just getting a campsite in some of the more popular destinations.

To get our place in Yosemite in June, for example, I had to be online, have a site picked out and have my credit card ready at 7 a.m. — on Jan. 15. And even then it was no picnic.

At the top of the hour, I hit the "reserve" button only to discover I was not fast enough. The site had already been grabbed. So were the other two spots I had queued up in other windows.

Suddenly I was on my heels trying to get any campsite I could. By 7:12 a.m. all the sites in the valley were booked through mid-July. We were fortunate to get anything.

If it was this hard for me — someone with a good computer, a high-speed connection and at least a basic understanding of the system — what chance does someone of lesser means have?

I hate to say it, but camping, at least staying overnight in places like Yosemite Valley, has become something of an elitist experience.

<NO1><NO>In recent years, great efforts have been made to reduce crowding in the valley and limiting human-caused damage. But the net result has been fewer opportunities for families to camp. Some sites have been taken out while others have not been replaced after being damaged by flooding.

Before 1997, the year of the major flood, there were 828 campsites in Yosemite Valley. Now there are 464. In the meantime, no one is talking about taking out rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

The National Park Service also has been trying to cut down on the number of people in campgrounds. I have no problem with a two-vehicle limit on campsites. But why the six-person limit, including children? This means if two families share a campsite — which is almost necessary given the complexity of the reservation system — they can each bring one child. What is this, China?

I don't mean to be flip. But when studies already show that affluent people engage in recreation more than poor people, it troubles me that we have systems in place that disproportionately discourage lower income families from taking advantage of our national treasures.

The state park system isn't much better when it comes to ease of camping. And while I understand the need to raise entrance fees in order to keep state parks open, we need to be more creative in making sure our parks don't become an experience only for the wealthy.

Not everyone can afford to buy their own Hawaiian island like Larry Ellison. But they should have a chance to get that in-tents experience of letting their kids go free — with sunscreen, of course.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com. Call him at (707) 521-5282.