Death Valley Looking to Electronic Rangers to Raise Money, Lure Younger Generations

Death Valley NP officials hope "GPS Rangers," such as this one with a Civil War image, will lure younger generations to their park, and generate a revenue stream along the way. BarZ Adventures photo.

Did you hear about the "electronic rangers" you can now rent in Death Valley National Park? For $15 a day these gadgets, which you place on your rig's dashboard, will give you a guided tour of the park. Park officials hope these devices, among other things, will generate a new revenue stream for Death Valley.

Manufactured by BarZ Adventures, these devices use GPS coordinates to trigger a video commentary of the immediate area. Already the devices have been deployed at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, and reportedly are on their way to Shenandoah National Park, if they're not already there.

Death Valley spokesman Terry Baldino told the AFP wire service that along with using the devices to entice younger generations to Death Valley, officials view the daily rentals as one way to boost revenues.

David Blacker, executive director of the Death Valley Natural History Association, had this to say about the GPS Rangers:

“In our attempt to keep Death Valley National Park relevant as we move into the 21st century we must embrace new technologies to help us with our educational and interpretive mission. This partnership with the National Park Service and Bar Z Adventures is our first step in doing this.”

Is the relevance of our national parks dangling on the future of where technology takes us? There's no doubt that advancements in technology play a key role in our lives, and can help deliver stirring interpretive programs in the parks. But first the younger generations have to want to go to the parks, and I question whether the prospect of listening to a GPS Ranger will be enough to persuade Susie and Johnny to beg their parents to take them to Death Valley or Shenandoah or Vicksburg.

Another question to ponder is whether it's a good thing to automate the national parks, to replace walking, talking interpretive rangers with electronics?

This summer I had the opportunity to join a ranger-led tour of the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. The ranger, Larry Gore, captivated an audience of roughly 20 with a natural history discussion of the rain forest. Young and old were listening intently to his talk, laughing at his jokes, and watching as he used visual aids -- puppets of salmon and banana slugs -- to explain the cycles of life in the Hoh.

Ranger Gore also clearly answered questions that arose.

Will the GPS Ranger be able to duplicate such an interpretive program?

Comments

For $15 a day these gadgets, which you place on your rig's dashboard, will give you a guided tour of the park.

Finally a way to visit a national park without having to get out of my car!

These sound like the 21st century of those audio tapes you used to be able to buy or rent to describe places motorists were passing.

Claire @ http://travel-babel.blospot.com

So now they can hire an illegal alien to collect your money and hand out these gizmos to the techno-starved masses. For me, our National Parks will always be the place to get away from places like this blogosphere, the computer on my desk at work, my telephone, and my kids' video games. I love it when the cell phone doesn't work. Pretty soon they'll have to install pay-per-nuke microwave ovens in the campsites so they can "connect" with that younger generation that doesn't know how to cook over an open flame.

But seriously, like the grocery aisle with all the toys and candy on display, this is yet another one of those things designed to drive a wedge between kids and their parents. Aww, come on Dad, please please please can we get a palm-ranger!? And if they don't get it, the sullen faces, the sour attitudes, and another ruined vacation. Watch all the parents cave in to the pop culture fad-of-the-week once again. Why even leave home?

It's not like Death Valley was offering guided road tours with a ranger in the first place. These gadgets are just replacing the cassette tapes you could buy at the visitors center in the olden days. Before that you had the written road logs (which required the use of mathematics in determining how far you had traveled using your odometer). These GPS gadgets are just an old idea using modern satellite technology.

Has anyone actually listened to one of these Bar Z Adventure tapes? As Homer Simpson would say "Booooooorrring!" Talk about turning the younger generation OFF. I'd be real surprised if very many people fork over real dough to make use of these tapes.

I see the day coming very soon, because I'm involved in helping to develop it, where you will be able to get this same kind of tour through an XM or Sirius satellite radio subscription, not only for national parks but also major cities and scenic regions like the Wine Country or Big Sur coast in California. It is also being developed for Onstar and other onboard navigation systems that will be installed in the cars of the future.

The truth is none of this will ever replace a real live ranger who can point his finger at something many miles in the distance, answer your question in two different ways or make you realize something that only he or she can convey at that particular moment in the time-space continuum. The public knows this, I just wonder sometimes how much the folks in WASO do?

They wouldn't happen to have some pizza and a drive-thru liquor store handy too, would they? I hope these devises are nice enough to inform you where the restrooms are.......

this site and it's following has a strong anti-technology bias. whether or not YOU go to the parks to escape technology isn't relevant to the public at large.

that said, i imagine that the reality is that managers are looking for ways to combat declining funding.

this probably includes ways to get educational messaging out to visitors, including podcasts, volunteers and all the other evils of technology. nothing better than a ranger giving a canned slideshow at an overly smokey campfire! (/sarcasm.)

i don't consider that a deliberate choice of downsizing, just a way to cope with bloated admin salaries with their automatic raises and lack of performance based continuation of employment combined with diminished funds for field staffing.

but i think beamis is right, they are boring and will never replace a well trained live ranger, the ones who aren't misanthropic and are patient and can identify with city folks after living at a park for a long time... you know, the ones who WANT to work interp and aren't all bitter about actually talking to people, like the backcountry ranger desk folks at zion... so bitter!

I would disagree that this site has a "strong anti-technology bias." If that were the case, this site wouldn't exist. The fact that it does exist speaks to our embrace of technology, as does the fact that we're entwining podcasts and videocasts with the typed word.

However, the editors' concern regarding technology such as the GPS Ranger is that it might be used to replace the "well-trained, live ranger."

Technology can be a wonderful tool for interpretation, for simplifying processes, for search and rescue and so many other endeavors. But I shudder to think of a day when campfire talks become virtual and your ranger-led hike requires a hand-held GPS Ranger. That day will not mark an advancement in interpretation, but rather a step backward.

While not trying to suck-up to the editors, indeed the overriding tone is NOT to be confused with an anti-technology idealism in the least. The sarcasm from this corner, at least, was directed toward the bias against the slothism (?) of the general public as a whole, not the devise in general. The entire premise of the national parks was to enable the public to have the opportunity to view an unspoiled environment, while never to be confused with a "walk in the park". The problem with interpretation via pod-casts, GPS, etc. is that it lends too much toward individual misinterpretation and listening without observing. One can stand at various overlooks at Bryce, Zion, Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Canyon for instance, and listen to a broadcast presentation highlighting the various strata of rock layers and formations, and at the same time COMPLETELY misidentify said landmarks visually, leaving a completely inaccurate view of the geology and topography which has just been presented to you. There has yet to be a suitable substitute invented for actually venturing into these environs and experiencing, up-close and personal, the full of the dimensions of the thickness of the redwall layer, the expanse and variety of the Navajo sandstone, the height of Zoroaster.......especially since in nature, nothing occurs in black and white. I've seen too many tourists who mistakenly leave these parks with the idea that colored rock layers reflect the sole component of various strata, without realizing that the majority of these divisions are the result of blending through multiple hues due to leeching of mineral components in the layers above, and are not the result of clear-cut definitions. It's not as though every few million years, the colors change just to satisfy the visual ability of the human eye. And ranger-lead interpretation is MOST helpful in accurately depicting these subtle changes, short of actually reading a book on the local geology.

@ kurt- i really think the bias against podcasts is in the vein of a slight anti-technological bent, intentional or not. blogs aren't really that tech, they're bread and butter of mainstream media now. and that statement is not meant to detract from the high quality of this site. but i think tech solutions in the park are *part* of a solution to low budgets in some manner and i don't ever get the feeling that's accepted by the npt community.

@ lone hiker- i don't see the difference between an electronic medium losing people on a tour and a bad podcast or handheld device or whatever. there are plenty of horrible interpreters out there, i think this site may have even highlighted one of them in kansas a while back... just because a live human being in uniform leads a tour doesn't guarantee anything of quality, especially without the cash to have someone auditing a tour, let alone train them properly.

*Blogs aren't really that tech...*

I think five years ago that statement wouldn't have held true, and even today they're continuing to morph and stretch and grow, limited only by their creator's imagination and $$$.

But that's a bit beside the point. You're exactly right that just because there's a person in uniform leading a tour or talk that the quality is not guaranteed. And that's where the Park Service needs to step up, not only with a solid training program and more interpreters -- not fewer -- but with auditing as you suggest. Is such a move included in the administration's Centennial Initiative?

True, the administration likes to tout that it's sending an extra 3000 rangers into the field in the coming year, but that's contingent on Congress funding the president's budget. And then there's the question of how experienced and knowledgeable these seasonals, if they trickle into the interpretive ranks, will be.

I wonder if turning to devices such as the GPS Ranger isn't an indication that the NPS is throwing up its hands over the lack of funding and reaching out for any solution and not always obtaining the correct solution? Again, I'm not dismissing outright the use of technology in providing a better interpretive experience in the parks, but I fear perceived solutions -- GPS Rangers, cellphone tours, etc -- could actually undermine, not heighten, the interpretive experience if they are relied upon more and more and the living, breathing, walking and talking full-time interpreters become a thing of the past.

Assurance of quality aside, how many questions can you anticipate being correctly answered by a GPS ranger? If your answer is no more of less that an "actual" ranger, then what's the point of having either available to visitors? The gist of my comment was that the impersonal nature of the devise initiates it's own set of issues, not the least of which includes a newfound self-dependence on already un(der)equipped visitors. A great number of folks annually find themselves in trouble by underestimating the environment and treating the adventure as a Sunday walk in the park. I'm finding it difficult to rally behind anything that increases the likelihood and probability of stressing an already undermanned staff with additional situations brought about by misuses of technology. Unfortunately, placing technological devises in the hands of literally anyone who wants or can afford it is the American way. How many people STILL don't have a clue how to use anti-lock braking systems? If you think not many, look at the surveys conducted by JD Powers and other organizations on how satisfied people are with automobile technology. How many nit-wits does it take to program a DVD-RW, how many people know the difference between a CD-R, CD+RW, etc? In the hands of the general public, commonly used pieces of "technology", even this ultra-low-end crap like GPS routefinders, are utilzied at less than 50% of their designed capabilities. Granted, it's mostly due to the public's unwillingness to read an owner's manual, but I digress. If hand-held or dashboard mounted devises are required to attract the "mew generation" of park visitors, and they cannot or will not come out without having some portable electronic devise to supplant the Gameboy, PDA or whatever, maybe they should consider taking a compass, binoculars, and water bottle instead. These would tend to be far more useful, and liberating, than a "Here's an oak tree, there's the parking lot, and oh by the way, you're standing in a pile of rabbit crap" virtual ranger.

When it comes to the National Parks, I believe a strong anti-technology bias is exactly what is called for. The parks are meant to be an escape to nature, not an extension of the rest of our world. Preserve and protect is the mission, not unlimited wireless access and broadband for all.

The more important bias effecting the parks is the one against properly funding the parks budget and addressing the multi-billion dollar maintenance and upkeep backlog. Under the Bush Administration the number of rangers has been drastically cut and the results really show.

It's time we stopped building bridges to nowhere and pissing away billions a month in phony military occupations and started taking care of the parks so we can leave them in better, not worse, condition than we found them. And no amount of high tech solutions is going to solve that problem.

The "anti-tech bias" is simply a straw man argument.

People shouldn't be watching a video screen while they're driving around a battlefield site or anywhere else for that matter.
Here's another recent attempt by NPS to "electronify" and replace real people. I like this better than the $15 gizmos for several reasons -- it can be done in any number of languages very inexpensively, there's not a lot of investment in new technology, it's invisible to the park, and there's no inherent profit motive in serving the park visitors. They may have trouble with such a plan in remote places with no cell service though.

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National Park Service Introduces New Lincoln Memorial Educational Guide

Washington D.C. – Beginning Wednesday, August 29, 2007 the National Park Service (NPS) with support from Eastern National, a cooperating association of the NPS, will begin offering free interpretive Ranger talks via telephone. These new Lincoln Memorial talks are organized around many themes including, “The Gettysburg Address”, “Debunking the Myths of the Lincoln Memorial”, and the “Life and Times of Lincoln the Man”. Ranger talks can be heard by dialing (202) 747-3420. The National Mall & Memorial Parks, a unit of the NPS which operates the Lincoln Memorial, presents Ranger programs at the Memorial daily from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. With the introduction of free telephone educational talks, the public will be able to learn more about President Abraham Lincoln and his memorial 24 hours a day from any location. “We are excited to make the legacy of President Lincoln even more accessible to the public,” stated Rosanna Weltzin, Site Manager for National Mall Operations for the National Mall & Memorial Parks.

The recorded messages use Guide By Cell developed technology to offer visitors a range of talks varying in length from two minutes to just under six minutes depending upon topic. The NPS plans to evaluate the success of this program and will be considering adding free telephone educational programs for more National Mall visitor sites, such as the World War II Memorial, in the future. Information about the free programs and the telephone number will be posted at the Lincoln Memorial and is listed on the NPS Lincoln Memorial website, www.nps.gov/linc.

Good Day,
I am Lee Little the developer of the GPS Ranger.

I too enjoy Ranger led talks and try to attend as many of these as possible. However one day at a National Park I was unable to find a Park Ranger to ask a question. I was frustrated. This lead me to start thinking about how technology could be used to relay the messages of the Park. Remember, I just wanted an answer to a simple question. This frustration lead to me to realize that the NPS maps dont' have alot of information either. So if I can't get a park ranger, what is the next best thing ?

Honestly I hate technology. But I like information, especially information about a Park that I have never been to. This is the fundamental theory behind the GPS Ranger. The GPS Ranger is a video player that triggers in front of a point of interest. We work with the National Parks and their interpretive personnel. In the process we video tape the "experts" and our system delivers their message. It is their tour. We offer a tool that helps them deliver their message. We have two goals when we develop a tour, they are, deliever a quality experience and make money for the Parks.

The goal of our system is to offer an educational tour for visitors that they most likely would not have gotten given the cut backs in staffing in our National treasures. Did you know that the GPS Ranger tour in Death Valley has over 3 hours of video content all approved by the Death Valley interpretive staff ?

We have designed our system to give back to the parks. We want the system to be a money maker for the parks. This money in turn goes back into other interpretive programs.

I would encourage those on this blog to try our products and tell us what you think....you can visit us at www.gpsranger.com.

Thank you
Lee Little

Good day Lee-

My given profession in cancer research, more specifically in the drug discovery arena. As such, technology is not something I shy away from, and as a friend told me years ago, "man should embrace technological advances and utilize the tools available to him to his own unique best advantage, not be intimidated by them".
My comments, as I mentioned a few times above, have less to do with technology in the parks as the fear that they by misused and visitors become dependent on gizmos and lose their self-reliance. GPS route-finders on the trails, I fear, will encourge too many under-equipped visits into the nether-reaches, as people even now ignore the warning to be properly prepared, physically, mentally, and equipment-wise, over-rating their ability to successfully conqueor such barren areas due to the fact that they carry this "security blanket" with them, completely ignoring the fact that getting lost is the LEAST of their concerns. I understand that this type of instrument is 180 degrees from what you have proposed, but too many times I've experienced the scenario that "if A, then B", and I can envision what you might call the natural progression of the beast. Once these devices are deemed successful, as I imagine they will be to some extent, the next logical step would be to expand on the uses of the technology, once it is in place. It called cost-effective planning and execution. I'm just hoping that someone realizes BEFORE undue stress is placed on an admittedly understaffed group of rangers what they're opening the doors to in the future, and make provisions to monitor, control and limit the advancement of technology before Pandora's Box is left wide open.

I would gladly experiment with your device. As a matter of fact, I'm quite looking forward to the opportunity. Then at least I can lend an informed opinion. Worst come to worst, at least I'll be on the trail again!