Who is Gen-Y and Should the Park Service Care?

Credit: Steve Woods

Computer animations can bring 18th-century cannon fire to life, but can they bring Gen-Yers to the national parks? Can an audiocast leading teens across a battlefield entice them enough to set foot in Saratoga National Historical Park? Can tracing a hike in Glacier National Park from the comforts of their homes convince this generation to beg their parents to visit Glacier on their next vacation? Those are questions that have more and more park managers searching for answers.

Back in March that question led Gina Johnson, the chief of interpretation at Saratoga NHP, to host a one-day workshop on "Generation Y," aka "The Internet Generation" and "Millennials," and their connection, or lack thereof, with national parks. While the workshop attracted but a dozen participants, the resulting 4-page report (see link below) has traveled like wildfire across the country, (courtesy, aptly enough, of the Internet), making stops not only in National Park Service offices but also in state offices and those of the U.S. Forest Service.

Among the report's highlights:


* Support for the National Park Service among Generation Y is essential to the future survival of the national parks.

* Naturephilia is being replaced by videophilia

* Generation Y (I)s increasingly separated from nature, yet this generation has an increased environmental awareness and interest

* Generation Y wants interactivity, quick feedback, choices, flexibility, and its members are generally good at teamwork.

* Each rising generation rejects the identify of its immediate predecessor. They want to define themselves.

Across the park system you can see efforts to reach out to this high-tech generation. Yellowstone has its Roving Rangers. Glacier has its e-Hikes. Even Gettysburg has its own podcast that guides you through a 90-minute walking tour of the Civil War battlefield.

Back at Saratoga NHP in upstate New York, Ranger Johnson tells me her park isn't that up to speed just yet. Part of the problem is that Saratoga NHP lacks the staff and funding to produce such wonders. Also, the park, as with many of the smaller units of the national park system, just doesn't have the technology to produce or display such wonders.

"We're not doing iPod tours, we're not doing e-Hikes. We're technologically behind," she laments. "Maybe because there are so many other national issues it's not being picked up as much in the national offices as some of us would like."

Apparently, though, Ranger Johnson's park was the first to hold a workshop on getting in touch with Gen-Y. (Shenandoah plans to hold one later this year) Among the 12 participants from Sienna College, six were men and six were women. All fell between the ages of 18 and 27. Ten had visited one or more national parks, eight had learned about parks on television, five via the Internet.

During the workshop, participants suggested the Park Service could do a better job getting their generation interested in the parks by, among other things, offering tours led by, and restricted to, members of their own generation; offering "college weekends;" promoting compelling reasons for them to visit the parks, such as how climate change is impacting places such as Glacier and Mount Rainier, and; having an NPS team visit college campuses to explain what the parks are about and what they offer.

At Saratoga NHP, "we're starting to move ahead on some of the suggestions," says Ranger Johnson.

For instance, the park provided an internship for one of the workshop participants so she could work on reaching out to fellow members of her generation regarding the value of parks. This young woman, Amy DeMarco, went so far as to generate a survey through which Gen-Yers could indicate what park programs would intrigue them; the survey was placed on Ms. DeMarco's MySpace page. Another intern this fall will work on turning the survey suggestions into one or two programs.

Additionally, next winter a Saratoga NHP staffer will visit Yellowstone's interpretive team to learn more about producing segments for Roving Rangers, with hopes that some specific to the Revolutionary War battlefield will be ready for downloading onto iPods and other MP3 players by next summer. Ranger Johnson's office also is talking with Rensselaer Polytech Institute, a nearby school, about developing a computer-generated, cannon-firing program that will allow visitors to perhaps compare an 18th-century cannon to more recent howitzers and mortars.

While such tools could make parks more intriguing to younger generations, Ranger Johnson hopes they don't displace rangers on the ground, for she believes their roles in interpreting the parks are invaluable.

At the Park Service's Northeast Regional Office, under which Saratoga NHP falls, Kathy Tevyaw, the I&E training manager, is optimistic the gist of the Saratoga NHP report will be embraced by Park Service officials.

"I think this report will be a catalyst for a much more in-depth treatment of looking at youth audiences and other diverse audiences that we need to draw to national parks to ensure that we have some stewards in the future," she says.

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