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

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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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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