Designations Just One Example of Disparities Within the National Park System. Web Sites Are Another

Content varies greatly across the web portals of the National Park System, as evidenced by a side-by-side comparison of the Gauley River National Recreation Area and Yellowstone National Park homepages.

The recent article about the roughly 30 designations that are in play across the 391 units of the National Park System highlights just one of the disparities that exist among units. Another example is the uneven quality of the 391 units' websites.

While it's oft said that regardless of the designation all units of the National Park System supposedly are treated equally by the National Park Service, nothing could be farther from the truth, at least not when it comes to web content. And that's unfortunate, as the Internet is about the only place the National Park Service conducts anything resembling a marketing campaign.

To prove that point, let's compare the websites of Yellowstone National Park and Gauley River National Recreation Area.

Yellowstone just might have the best webmeisters in the Park Service, and a deep support crew in terms of public affairs, interpretation, and science staffs.

Go to Yellowstone's website and right off the bat the lefthand column offers you choices to Plan Your Visit, Photos and Multimedia, History and Culture, Nature and Science, For Teachers, For Kids, News, Management, and Support Your Park. In the body of the homepage there are more hot links to take you to Directions, Operating Hours and Seasons, Fees and Reservations, Road Construction Delays and SEASONAL Closures, Centennial Initiative 2016, Publications, What's New, and Webcams.

Move beyond that homepage and you can spend hours sifting through old and new photographs of the park; videocasts of the park; many chapters of Yellowstone's management history, with a bent toward winter-use; learn all about backcountry camping and how to obtain permits; fishing rules; campgrounds; education programs such as the well-received Expedition Yellowstone; lists of approved outfitters, including those that focus on photography; management debates over the park's northern range, and much, much more.

The website for Gauley River, sadly, pales greatly in comparison. Its lefthand column is modest, even Spartan, offering just Plan Your Visit, History and Culture, Nature and Science, and Management options. The body of the page contains hot links for Directions, Operating Hours and Seasons, Fees and Reservations, and Riparian Assessment.

There is no specific section for Photos and Multimedia, or News, and nothing For Teachers or For Kids, and no way to Support Your Park. Now, if you root around the website you'll find some content, such as more details on whitewater adventures on the Gauley, a nice page that, when updated, lets you figure out both water levels on the Gauley and when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans releases from the Summersville Dam for the fall 2009 rafting season. And there's a link to American Whitewater's Gauley River page, which offers ample information on the Gauley.

Sadly, the History and Culture page offers only a time-line of human occupation in the area and the evolution of the rafting industry. And while some park websites go into rich detail with birding lists, flower lists, and faunal information, Gauley River's Nature and Science page on its face is highly generic, though you can download pdfs addressing the recreation area's riparian areas.

Now, this is not intended to serve as a critique of the Gauley River staff. Rather, it's to point to the inequities that exist across a system that is not supposed to have such inequities. Understandably, larger parks with more acreage, more infrastructure and more tourism traffic are going to require more money and staff. But if you accept that the National Park Service's web presence is the agency's, and the 391 units', main form of getting the word out of the wonders that exist within the National Park System, you'd hope there would be equity across the system.

They say President Obama is highly cognizant of the powers of the Internet, Let's hope he expects his agency heads to be just as cognizant and that they order some much-needed work on the Park Service sites.

Comments

This is a pretty weak argument, Kurt. I'd love for the smaller parks to have better websites, but there's no way that a smaller unknown unit like Gauley River would ever have a website like Yellowstone's. And, boy, I'd be pissed if they did because I bet the web traffic is probably 50-1 for Yellowstone and let's be honest, they don't have that much to post up there.

I too think this comparison is a bit silly. Yellowstone had 27 times as many visitors as Gauley River in 2007. Don't you think it might be appropriate to invest more time and money into its website? And not only actual visitors count: How many students in all grades and disciplines write papers on Yellowstone and how many on Gauley River? And here on the Traveler 169 articles are tagged Yellowstone National Park, two for Gauley River NRA (both today and including this one).

More data: The NPS has no public access statistics for their website, but Wikipedia does. In February 2009, the article on Yellowstone was accessed 35873 times, The one on Gauley River 298 times. Money is tight, there is high demand for experts time. How should the NPS spend their budget for web development and content creation? On Gauley River NRA?

Soooo, should the NPS rid itself of Gauley River NRA? If only 298 folks visited the site in February (and I'm not sure how Wikipedia counts those hits), is that indicative that the NRA doesn't belong in the National Park System?

Don't misunderstand. I'm certainly not suggesting that Gauley River's website be as rich as Yellowstone's. The content simply isn't there, no matter how strong the resources. And I clearly pointed out that larger, more prominent parks such as Yellowstone certainly have more needs to meet than smaller units such as Gauley River.

But how do you build interest in a unit of the National Park System? By ignoring it? If the 391 units of the National Park System are presented as the best of the best and viewed as treasures that should be preserved, don't they all deserve some even-handedness in how they are presented by the NPS? Shouldn't there be a basic amount of content across the board?

Gauley River is just one example of the inequities that exist when it comes to NPS web presence. And you don't have to drill down too far into the "designations" to find such inequities. Check out the websites of Badlands, Isle Royale (which on its face appears more Spartan than Gauley River), or Cape Lookout National Seashore.

As for the costs of updating these websites, there are plenty of web design schools across the country that surely could be involved with a little outreach.

P.S. -- MRC, if you use the Traveler's search function, you'll find a few more articles that reference Gauley River.

Here is an idea... Perhaps a suggestion system could draw attention to overlooked parks. Much like Amazon.com, iTunes music store, and Netflix gives users suggestions about what books, music, or movies they may like. It could be interesting to see something like that for public lands. You could go to NPS.GOV and answer a few quick questions (rate things like "I like to learn about History"). You could go even further and build in a rating system.

As for finding out what people are searching for, check out http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q It is a google tool that allows one to look at search volumes and who is searching. The numbers are sometimes difficult comprehend but still interesting. Also, there are no raw numbers for searches but you can compare places and get relative/proportional data.

I believe that there needs to be a baseline, or minimal amount of support delegated for all entities within the NPS. In this case, web support. Once this is established, we (the tax payers) should expect to receive the best "bang for the buck" when it comes to allocation and spending. I also understand this is easier said than done. Bottom line here is, not all public lands were created equal. Some require (and deserve), more care and attention than others. Let's make sure that ALL lands are researchable with adequate information. It is not necessary to exploit every resource.
After all . . . Is it really such a bad thing to have a few lesser known gems to discover and explore?

Wait a second...because a park is small it should not bother with a large website? Now, that IS a weak argument. Especially when you consider how EASY it is for one person to make a huge difference with a website. Kurt is exactly right! We want to build interest in all the parks. Building a great website is the most cost-effective way possible to keep people informed and build interest. Look what Kurt has done with this website. It is so cheap to do. The National Park Service is supposed to manage ALL of the parks, not just the big ones!

It looks to me like the NPS created a CMS (content management system) at the national level with standard templates and let the parks fill in their own content at the local level. The NPS should have a team of people build content (books, articles, images, etc) into ALL of these different park websites...instead, they leave it up to the local level. If the local park has the resources to add there own content, fine. I have no doubts that one team of people could build up every park website (to the level of Yellowstone's) in a year or two. Then, the only issue is maintaining current information, such as current conditions, news, and so forth.

Believe me! I'v done it for our non-profit.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
www.craterlakeinstitute.com

The really bad thing is that all the websites seem to look exactly the same and that even the Yellowstone website is not that good, at least not given the level of interest the park probably generates. The NPS should maybe consider revamping the entire website system.

By the way, do webmasters have to use the NPS CMS? Or would the webmaster of, say, Gauley River be free to set up an entirely different website or is he bound to use the NPS-administered CMS?

They way I understand it is that most of the webdesign is done through a central office in DC. Individual parks can do very little, and most of the changes they can make are in the photo&multimedia section.

Let's not forget that NPS website were completely redone in August 2006 (or 07). They've just undergone a massive, system-wide redesign and aren't likely to change anytime soon.

And if you think that park pages aren't equal, try checking out other sites...ie - http://www.nature.nps.gov/

Chris makes a good point. The NPS websites all look the same. Unfortunately, letting each park build their own site would lead to huge inequalities in website design...most of which often end of looking very amateurish. Not the message you want sent by a world-class organization. I believe there should be a certain level of design that ties all the NPS sites together while allowing each park to strut it's own park's stuff, if they are so inclined.

The size of the park isn't always a determinant as to how nice a particular park's website is. Remember, webmaster/web designer is often a collateral duty of someone who works at the office and it is up to the motivation of that individual as to how well the website is maintained and filled with content. I believe their should be a full-time person at the park or at the regional office who interacts with the interpretation and resource management staff. As I pointed out earlier, the web is THE most cost-effective way to reach people. One person, building a website, can reach thousands and tens of thousands of people. And, that reach isn't solely because the park is big or small. The search engines treat the NPS park sites as one collective whole...one giant website. So, any park that builds a website is automatically granted a very high ranking in regards to the keyword phrases that pertain to the particular park.

Each park used to have it's own separate website...the NPS referred to these as "Expanded website"...as in... "See the Expanded website of Crater Lake National Park for more information." However, I think this is all slowly being rolled up into the Content Management System, the NPS has set up. By the way, the NPS website, while boring, is fairly well designed...in a usability sense.

This all ties into the previous article on how many discrepancies there are in the parks. A website is no trivial thing. It's a symptom of how the NPS manages it's parks, in general.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
www.craterlakeinstitute.com
Robert Mutch Photography,
www.robmutch.com

There aren't really webmasters for most NPS web servers, but yes there are strong constraints on how public-facing websites must look (both for branding & consistency and for accessibility laws), rules about links to non-NPS sites, etc..

To an extent, "on the web, nobody knows you're a dog" should allow small parks to have as fancy of web presences as large, rich parks. But small NPS units like Gauley River NRA or Fort Bowie NHS simply don't have staff available for generating their own websites. [Gauley River has no one in the NPS employee directory, which implies that the staff are listed under New River Gorge or other units or the region.] Fort Bowie has a ranger, a park guide, and a masonry worker (likely on a temporary assignment for a specific project). The 2 or 3 permanent staff cover the duties of superintendent, archeologist, maintenance man, resource manager, planning, interpretation, and everything else. They probably wouldn't have time to supervise a volunteer web developer even if one were to appear at their door. Further, until the past few years, most NPS units didn't have basic information like species lists. The initial priority is to make that information available to the superintendents and managers on the intranet.

One of several directions that NPS web content is going is the set of virtual learning centers:
http://www.nature.nps.gov/learningcenters/map.cfm
Most of these are multi-unit resources at the level of inventory & monitoring network. so a couple of people can provide content for multiple park units (or, less charitably, poor units can piggyback on large rich units). Most are just getting up and running, and few are linked from individual park websites yet. Yes, large, well-resourced units like Yellowstone have more interpretive staff, and thus larger and better virtual learning centers, but the learning centers pretty freely share ideas and code, so the result should be better web resources for all. Some are collaborations with non-NPS partners such as the Learning Center of the American Southwest,
http://dev.southwestlearning.org/index.php

As more information is gathered on each park, more will appear on the web, especially for natural resources.

The parks' websites were unified in mid to late 2006, if I remember correctly. Before that date only the main pages were the same in the whole system and each park could set up as many subpages on any topic they liked and could build with their own staff. Some parks still have the archived version of their former website online - and for example about Glacier National Park you will find much better information in the archive than on the current pages.

As far as I know, the new - or not so new anymore - websites were created in Harpers Ferry and the individual parks now can fill the given structure with their own content. But only in the given layout, site map structures and formats.

And @ Kurt: Gauley River NRA probably is a nice place. But it is obviously attractive only for six weeks in a year, for white water paddling only. At all other times there seems to be absolutely nothing interesting about it. It is a gorge without road access, that could be nice for hiking, but there are no decent signed trails, not even a picnic site. In 1996 a general management plan was approved, but it seems like it was never implemented. So I leave it to the readers of the Traveller if Gauley River NRA is worth national status and if much needed funds should be spend on its website. Finally: the wikipedia access statistic works as all of them work, with a counter in the server software. It is supposed to be reliable.

The largest, most popular parks are much more highly favored not just by visitors or managers.
Park partners, especially "educational" partners, provide a great deal of funding to the larger parks with screaming resources that everyone wants to visit. The big sexy parks get more support, unfortunate but it's true, because it's awesome and cool to be associated with them.

Who paid for the production of Yellowstone's volumes of web content? You can bet one of the partner's did, and not the NPS. Who got all that content up on the website? Very possibly one of their hundred's of volunteers.

So, put aside the visitation arguments, the unification of branding arguments, etc. And let's look at a plain reality.
The smaller, less visited units of the NPS have much smaller staff, and fewer, if any, financial partners. Who is supposed to develop the web content? Who is supposed to pay for it? Web content must be on the bottom of the priority list for the managers of smaller, less visited units.

Seriously Kurt, I hope the motivation for this argument was to get a dialogue going, and not to criticize the big parks for taking advantage of the finances thrown their way, and the partners that are knocking down their doors. That's unfair, and unnecessary.
And PLEASE, I hope no one suggests that the NPS add more staff in Washington or their regional offices to accomplish a web-equity program; those offices are already way too top heavy with marginal visible effectiveness, or results that affect the visitor in a positive, tangible way.
It would be more useful for you to just put up a giant banner ad on this website that says VOLUNTEER AT YOUR LOCAL NATIONAL PARK, or CREATE FINANCIAL PARTNERSHIPS WITH YOUR FAVORITE PARK. Because we all know the sad truth that the federal government just won't pony up the dough to take care of all 391 units equitably.

And while you're at it Kurt, how about a moratorium on Traveler content concerned with the same 20 big parks, and maybe a new focus on the 100 or so smallest or least visited parks? That would be a more proactive solution to the inequity you give lip-service to.

Volunteerism and lip-service?

How's this for volunteerism -- The Traveler has been a volunteer effort for nearly four years now.

As for lip-service, perhaps you should take a glance through the "Browse Content By Date" search function. Here's a quick rundown of variety:

Let's see, in the past month there have been posts on Gateway NRA (1), Glacier (2), Grand Teton (3), the National Park Foundation's Junior Ranger Essay Contest, Everglades (4), Lake Clark NP and Preserve (5), Cape Lookout (6), the website situation, Navajo National Monument (7), Valley Forge (8), Voyageurs (9), Joshua Tree (10), Ocmulgee National Monument (11), Rock Creek Park 912), Shenandoah (13), Blue Ridge Parkway (14), Denali (15, Indiana Dunes (16), Cape Cod National Seashore (17), Mount Rainier (18), Zion (19), Bryce Canyon (20), the Waco mammoth site, Glen Canyon (21), Cedar Breaks (22) and Yosemite (23). We've also written about the massive lands bill that affected a handful of parks, including Pictured Rocks (24), Rocky Mountain (25), and Sequoia (26); the NPS ban on lead, and delisting of the gray wolf.

And we've also had stories that touched on Grand Canyon (27), the National Mall (28), the prospect of Mount St. Helens in the park system, Chiricahua National Monument (29), Arches (30), Acadia (31), Scotts Bluff NM (32), the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park (33), Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve (34), Fort Moultrie National Monument (35), Saguaro NP (36), Olympic (37), and Buffalo National River (38).

Less than one month, 38 different units mentioned, nearly one-tenth of the entire system. And look at the little guys sprinkled through there. C'mon, Anonymous, lip-service?

Tell you what, you write an article on any unit you'd like to and we'll consider posting it. That way you can be part of the volunteer effort.

How about NOT mentioning those 38 units again until after this site posts an article about, or at the very least mentions the remaining 358 units? (Or is my math incorrect because I blindly believe the NPS' designations and official count of units is good enough for most purposes?)

Since Yellowstone was a focus of the original article, I typed the term Yellowstone in Traveler's Search box. I received 90 pages of citations. 90 pages, or almost 900 individual posts to Traveler that either mention Yellowstone, or are devoted primarily to Yellowstone.

How can we expect the general public to care more about the smaller and less-funded parks, especially in arenas such as web content or funding, when we here at the Traveler, one of the best web blogs around, mention the big giant parks over and over again in the majority of articles? That's what I was getting at when I used the infuriating term "lip service". Are we really that concerned with an issue such as web content to discuss inequity of monetary resources across the agency?

What effect does inequity in web site content have on the majority of potential visitors? Probably not much. We live a pretty good life if we can devote the time and intellectual energy to argue back and forth about something such as this.
But I humbly suggest to our readers, if we can't get the information we're looking for through our laptops, perhaps we need to unplug and actually telephone the park and speak to a human, or even *gasp* write to them to request the information we're looking for.

(Consider that perhaps there just isn't that much at Gauley River except rafting and kayaking opportunities. Does a single use focus warrant endless pages of content or podcasts?)

I mentioned banners for volunteerism and partnerships as a way of fostering awareness and concern among our readers for those parks that don't receive the attention and support from the NPS managers we all agree they should.
It wasn't an attack on you personally, Kurt. You do an awesome job with the sight, I'm sure all readers would agree, and we're grateful for the considerable amount of time you devote to it.

When offering criticisms for something so miniscule as equity of web content across the entire agency, perhaps we should offer solutions, or better yet, actively solicit our readers to go volunteer their considerable services to those parks whose web content isn't up to snuff.
Because we all know that the only way this perceived deficiency is going to be rectified will be through private funding and volunteer man hours. The feds just don't have the scratch to make it happen. THAT was the point of my post.

Let me now add that IMHO I for one would rather see any monies and energy possibly devoted to a more equitable NPS web presence diverted towards the maintenance backlog. Or payroll to provide an increased employee presence for me, the visitor. Or for even greater preservation and conservation efforts. Or for aggressive stewardship outreach among minority communities. Or for converting NPS facilities to sustainable, responsible technologies. Or for getting folks that can't afford their own computers (and are more concerned about where their next meal is coming from) into these incredible parks, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

For the most part, NPS Web content is principally driven by 1) a dedicated/interested
NPS employee (and in a few cases, employees, plural) and/or 2) a dedicated/interested
volunteer. This is pretty much consistent whether the park be large or small, old or
new. In many cases existing Web content was created by that NPS employee and/or
volunteer, who is no longer associated with a given park and additions to Web
content then grinds to a halt.

Compounding that problem is a general lack of apprecation on the part of many
NPS managers to expend resources to expand parks' Web offerings. THE primary
focus is the park visitor who walks into the front door of the visitor center
or entrance station and 'electronic visitors' don't count. That tends to
discourage dedicated/interested NPS employees (and volunteers) from devoting
more time to expanding a park's Web site.

A case in point is the NPS History Web site (http://www.nps.gov/history/history).
The electronic library (3,000+ documents online) is principally (though not
solely) the work of one NPS employee and one volunteer; the only funding
Management has provided is the salary of that one NPS employee.

The old Expanded Web sites (mentioned previously) was an example of pre-CMS Web
development efforts, most of which were done by people no longer associated
with those parks, with no one left (or who has time) to migrate that content
into CMS or 'expand' upon what was already performed. This content has been
migrated to the 'archive' Web site, which is slated to be taken offline in October.
If you think Web content is lean now, wait until October when tens of thousands
of person-hours of Web development simply vanishes (if you have a favorite Web page
in the archives, you better save it to your local computer now before it's gone).

Practically, however, even under the best of circumstances, Gauley River NRA
(or Fort Bowie NHS or Minidoka Internment NM, as examples) will never
equal the content of units in the Park System that have been around for
100+ years; the amount of research that has been conducted over the years,
the plethora of resource specialists that exists in the larger/older parks,
and the general level of funding that national parks will always garner versus
smaller/less-visited park units will simply yield far more opportunities for Web
content for the Yellowstones/Yosemites/Mount Rainiers than the
Gauley Rivers/Fort Bowies/Mindoka Internments.

Hopefully NPS Management will someday come to recognize the value of having
BOTH a strong Web presence, in addition to the traditional in-park visitor
experience, so the Gauley River's in the System will offer something more
electronically than it does today.

Thanks to everyone for this engaging conversation and for your interest in the design and information quality of park websites on NPS.gov. I manage the NPS web team, which works to make certain that every park, regardless of resources or size, has at least a basic web presence to help visitors get to and enjoy their parks. Although I formerly worked at a park, I cannot speak to how parks choose what or how much content that they provide since the choice of how each park's resources is allocated lies with their management. However, since I've been with the NPS web team for a decade, work with every park and office and see behind the scenes, I thought that it might benefit this dialogue if I clear up some of the confusion about our site.

It is true that we have begun to use a content management system (CMS) to manage our site, primarily because it provides our park and national program subject matter experts the ability to more quickly develop content rather than focus their resources on web development and design. Thus, instead of having a single web expert versed in web technologies (HTML, etc.) who is the only person that can manage a park's website, we now have some parks with up to 20-25 authors adding content to their sites (including employees, volunteers, partners and contractors), and there is no limit to how much content they can provide (some parks now have sites with a thousand or more pages). For those parks that do have web expertise at their disposal, those skills are now focused on more advanced content, such as flash features, webcams, video and podcasts.

While this system can seem a bit constraining to the aspiring designer, the consistent design allows our visitors to focus on the information rather than constantly relearning the look and feel, which should be (and is) one of our usability goals. When you are serving many millions of visitors a month, many of them first timers to NPS.gov, consistency can be key to their experience. However, this post originated as a discussion on information quality, and any variations in that quality are now more apparent because of our consistent presentation. This has not gone unnoticed by NPS management and our team, and thus, we have started working with offices and parks to address the issue.

In addition, as one poster pointed out above, there are numerous legal requirements to which we are bound to adhere. Trying to manage those requirements across 600,000+ pages and approximately 2,000 web authors can be extremely difficult without a CMS. Now, though, as an example, if we have to address a Section 508 issue in a design, we can do it once to a handful of templates that then automatically correct the issue throughout the site. It's impossible to automate every requirement, but the more pressure that we can take off of our parks and allow them to focus more on serving the visitor and caring for the resources, the better.

We have only just begun to reap the benefits of moving to a CMS. Since we're still in transition, we've got a ways to go before all of the tools are in place.There are some legal and policy barriers that affect our ability to do so more quickly, but our management is working to address those issues as well. This system puts us in a good position, though, to respond to the public's desire for more interaction, transparency and sharing of data. The NPS is the steward of a wealth of information about our national treasures, some of it managed by the individual parks and some of it not. When our site was static HTML, it was often not easy to find all of this information. Slowly but surely, though, we are making all of this information more discoverable and at the fingertips of our stakeholders, the American public (and our global audience, as well).

As I've indicated, there is often more at play than meets the eye, and sometimes even a bit of confusion about what we are doing (for example, we have not removed any park content from NPS.gov unless requested by the managing park or park's regional office). However, I can assure you that we work diligently on the parks and national programs' behalf, looking for ways that we can help them achieve their goals and the NPS mission, while at the same time working within the framework provided to us by Congress, OMB and our Department.

Thanks again, and if anyone has additional feedback that you feel would benefit our efforts (including constructive criticism...it's all welcome!), please feel free to email me anytime.
Tim Cash
Acting NPS Web Manager

Thanks for the insights from the inside, Tim. Providing templates is one thing, finding enough folks with the time to populate them is another;-)

The additional multimedia content that more and more parks are providing hasn't been overlooked. Indeed, it's been a valuable resource for the Traveler and well-received by many of our readers.

As you noted, the NPS stewards a wealth of information. Bringing much of that to the Internet is a great way to help educate and inform the public about those treasures in their backyards.