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Getting American Youth More Involved in the National Parks is a Difficult Challenge and a Golden Opportunity
National Park Service personnel and Congressmen from across the nation are scrambling to boost youth interest in the parks. Indeed, Park Service employees have told me that this is now one of the agency’s main focuses. As a young person who’s also a former NPS employee, I’m exposed to both sides of the proverbial fence.
But before I fully delve into the topic, I think Id better explain how I became who and what I am. Growing up on the Cumberland Plateau in rural Tennessee, I've lived in the heart of one of the South's most spectacular regions. Drive in any direction from my childhood home, and in less than an hour you'll pass at least one, but probably two or three tracts of state or federal public land. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area are all within a two-hour drive of my hometown.
Because of this, I pretty much grew up in the parks. Not literally of course, but I've spent most of my summer days either camping, hiking, or planning my family's next adventure. My fondest memories are of the park system, and I credit my mom with creating those for me.
This leads to my first point – that without some adult influence, children are not likely to wake up one day and magically become interested in the parks. Parents, teachers, and other adults have to help youngsters learn about the parks, and this includes helping them to get firsthand experience with the parks.
The Park Service has a role to play in this mission, of course. The agency has made great strides in this direction, as I witnessed firsthand over the summer.
For instance, the youth-oriented WebRangers program, an online Junior Rangers program (available in both English and Spanish), is working wonders. The staff behind it should be complimented for their hard work. Still, there are some problems. At the visitor center where I worked, visitors would often pick up a WebRangers brochure and then put it down. Why? Probably because they couldn't use WebRangers while visiting the park. WebRangers, in my opinion, is most valuable as a tool for classroom use.
The Park Service should consider adapting the WebRangers program to work as an application for Facebook or Myspace, the two most popular social networking sites. Youth would then be able to proclaim their NPS pride right on their profile, and learn something in the process.
Unlike WebRangers, the Junior Ranger programs implemented in parks throughout the country are designed to involve children during their park visits. The Junior Ranger programs are important, and do play their own unique role, driving kids to see how many badges they can collect. Those that require potential Junior Rangers to go to a ranger-led program help ensure that no matter how tight the budget, there will be at least be some ranger-led programs offered for the youngsters.
Moreover, it struck me recently that if a kid is in the park doing the program, chances are that s/he is already at least somewhat interested in the park. I believe that Junior Ranger programs aren't 'the hook' to get children excited about the park system – that's what those traveling trunks, WebRanger programs, and adult mentors are for. Instead, Junior Ranger programs keep kids interested by challenging them to learn about, and protect, the host park.
Speaking of traveling trunks, many national parks offer video tapes, slideshows, or other interpretive items for loan to teachers. But some of these sites only lend the materials to teachers in their vicinity. Now, if you are a student in Alamagordo, New Mexico, would you rather watch a film about nearby (and probably familiar) White Sands National Monument, or a distant park like West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River? Which would you pay more attention to in a dark classroom after a nice, filling lunch? It seems to defeat much of the purpose of the traveling trunks to restrict their travel! I can understand that folks might not want to ship their stuff cross-country, but what is the purpose of these materials, indeed of all interpretive work, if not to expose people to new experiences and items that they haven't seen before?
If the Park Service wants to make the traveling trunks and loan programs more effective, the agency should provide central administration and distribution services for the programs instead of requiring individual parks to provide these services in piecemeal fashion from scattered locations. By providing universal free or low-cost access to these materials, the Park Service would be exposing schoolchildren everywhere to parks from across America instead of just nearby parks.
It’s clear that the 2016 Centennial Initiative has tremendous potential for stimulating youth interest in the national parks. Most, if not all of the parks have written documents outlining their goals for the Centennial. If you are so inclined, you can access most of these Centennial Strategies materials online, and if you read them, you’ll notice a common theme. Most of the documents talk about things such as designing a new junior ranger program, building new and more interactive websites, partnering with local schools, building new visitor centers, hiring more interpretive staff, and advancing other worthy goals.
But some important things seldom get mentioned in the Centennial Strategies. For instance, most of the new programs outlined in the documents are aimed at elementary and middle school youth. Why leave out high school? The Park Service could partner with the College Board's Advanced Placement Program to integrate the parks into the AP curriculum so America's top high school students can learn about parks in a manner that will compliment their college-level studies.
The agency could also work to ensure that when schools sponsor career days, rangers are there to encourage students to consider careers in the Park Service. Parks could even allow students to shadow a ranger for a day, providing a win-win situation – the park gets a volunteer for a day and the students learn about “life in the green and grey.”
The Park Service's Centennial is quite literally a one-time opportunity to rebuild America's national parks. But while we focus on core problems such as the huge maintenance and acquisitions backlogs, we should not neglect the serious business of attracting America’s youth to the parks and making them park advocates. Given the difficult challenges the Park service faces today, building a broadly-based advocacy movement for the parks has never been more critical.
Unlike resolving a controversial issue, such as whether to permit concealed carry in the parks, using the Centennial Initiative and other tools to promote the greater involvement of youth in our Park System is something we should all be able to agree on. It’s something we can all stand behind and speak with one voice on.
True, this essay started out as a commentary on contemporary youth and the national parks, but there is the long term future to consider as well. The lifeblood of the National Park Service is its ability to inspire new generations. We have a historic opportunity to capture the interest of youth as we countdown to 2016. We mustn’t let it slip through our fingers