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Reader Participation Day: Are Our National Parks Losing Their Relevancy?


Would these settings become irrelevant if only a handful of people saw them? NPT file photos.

Rel⋅e⋅vant -- /ˈrɛləvənt/ [rel-uh-vuhnt] –-adjective-- bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand; pertinent: a relevant remark.

Are our national parks losing their relevancy?

I raise that question because on one hand we saw an upwelling of interest last fall when The National Parks: America's Best Idea riveted many to their television sets for six consecutive nights, and yet on the other hand National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis shortly after he was appointed cited a need to prevent the parks from becoming irrelevant.

"I have conducted over 200 interviews with superintendent candidates, and I always ask, 'What is the biggest issue facing the NPS into the future?' The majority answer, 'relevancy,' the director said back in September in a system-wide email to his staff. "There is deep concern out there that national parks will become irrelevant to a society that is disconnected from nature and history. We need to help all Americans – especially young people – discover a personal connection to their national parks.

"While the places are spectacular, it is our people that make parks come alive. In Ken Burns’s documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea he focuses as much on the people as on the parks: employees, residents of gateway communities, scientists, scholars, politicians, indigenous people, activists, concessioners, volunteers, partners and, of course, visitors. Without them, the National Park System would not exist, many parks would never have been established, and the National Park Service would not have the deep support of the American people that we enjoy. I believe every American will relate to and cherish their national parks if given the chance to connect, by technology or by visiting. Beyond parks, our recreation and historic preservation community assistance programs reach and benefit families near their homes in ways that the parks cannot. I plan to expand these programs."

Is the park system struggling with being relevant in the 21st century? Equally worried about the relevancy of parks are the concessionaires that work in them.

"Visitation has declined significantly over twenty years even as the overall population has grown and diversified, and even as a higher percentage of the visits has shifted to close-to-urban center units like Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Lake Mead National Recreation Area," said a white paper prepared last summer for the National Park Hospitality Association, which represents the concessionaires. "Equally importantly, lengths of stays have shortened, and visitation to parks remains largely homogeneous: Caucasian, affluent and educated. There are exceptions. But the exceptions are invariably linked to park units that have worked hard to be visible and relevant regionally.

"...We have already lost a generation – perhaps two generations – of Americans who regularly utilize parks and the Great Outdoors for relaxation and recharging – mental and physical. Large portions of the post-Boomer adult generations have turned to shopping malls and electronic entertainment for leisure pursuits and have limited traditions or skills in the outdoors. And absent intervention and assistance, this pattern will repeat, as parents fail to introduce kids to the outdoors. The truth is that there are major and potent competitors for the leisure time of all Americans, and especially youth. These competitors use advertising and other promotion extensively, and have effectively 'hidden' many traditional leisure choices, including park visits. National park visits can’t compete ad for ad, but there are strategies for making parks and fun outdoors more 'top of mind.'"

The white paper, which promoted creation of a National Parks Promotion Council, said particular focus should be placed on (1) youth; (2) urban; (3) lower income; (4) non-Caucasian; (5) seniors and (6) new Americans.

Of course, to answer this question I suppose one has to define how relevancy, when it comes to national parks, looks. In 2008 the Park Service counted nearly 275 million recreational visits to the parks. Would 300 million visits reflect better relevancy? Three-hundred-fifty million? Four-hundred-million? Or are the parks relevant no matter what the level of visitation?

Do the settings in the accompanying photos lose relevancy if only ten people view them?

Tell us what you think. Are the national parks in danger of becoming irrelevant? And if you think so, what should be done?


Kurt - in my opinion, I believe the National Parks have loss some of it's respect in what it stands for and it's spiritual reverence. The parks have now become a economic business mecca instead of a spiritual mecca.

"Are parks relevant no matter what the level of visitation? ... Do the settings in the accompanying photos lose relevancy if only ten people view them?"

Good topic; good questions. I absolutely believe relevancy is a key to the future of the national park system, for practical reasons ... they are publicly funded and people won't support being taxed for irrelevancies. So, for elected representatives to support funding to reduce the maintenance backlog or add new parks or programs, they need to believe their constituents see some value in doing it.

The "how" of relevancy is quite another matter! Visitation in the physical-presence-in-the-park sense is not the be-all and end-all of park relevancy. In fact, I submit it can be a bankrupt strategy that degrades park resources and the park experience and distracts us from other, perhaps more important, relevancy.

Example: When I first met the Internet, more than 15 years ago (when many managers thought it would go the way of 8-track tapes), I can still remember the thrill I felt when I pulled up the Library of Congress image of a pencil-written draft of the Gettysburg Address. I felt like I was looking at a piece of the True Cross! Could I have that thrill at Gettysburg NMP? I don't think so. I could go to GETT on a peak summer day, fight the traffic and the crowds, overwork the staff and be one more set of feet and hands impacting the resource. Increasing visitation increases impact, drains resources and, arguably, lessens the quality of visitor experience in many instances.

Being there is not the only measure of the relevancy of a park.

Our park system is an amazing mosaic of U.S. natural and cultural history. Every piece of that mosaic is multi-faceted ... there are SO many stories that can be told at every one of the NPS units! No one visitor can get all the stories; no visitor WANTS all the stories. But, through books, images, videos and the Internet the world can have all those stories at their fingertips, going where they want, making use of the stories they're interested in ... creating their own relevancy!

But have you ever seen park statistics on Web site hits, interpretive materials sold, etc.? No, we're still back in the Stone Age, relying on counting physical bodies and assuming that means something, whatever it is.

Although some of our parks have shown a decline in visitation, some have had record crowds in 2009. As our population grows and ages so too will park attendance increase. Even the wife and I did not start visiting our national parks until our early thirties excluding those within a reasonable drive from our home here in NY. The present economy has much to do with it as anything else. We were just two of the record numbers visiting Yellowstone & Grand Teton this past summer. Look at the cost of traveling cross-country to visit our parks, especially those with children in tow. The money needed to travel to and stay and eat in places like Jackson and Teton Village,WY are just too cost prohibitive for so many. As the younger population ages and their incomes increase they will only then have the means to visit parks that are not in their immediate home areas. Our national parks will always be relevant for the majority of Americans whether or not they can afford the trip right now.

Couple things -

1. Consider the proliferation of virtual tours and other such experiences that let you see what is at these places on the web. Is this a good thing and does it come at the expense of in-person visitation?

2. Do we need to rethink the idea of traveling great distances in our autos and planes to see the parks, due to the effect that such travel has on these places? It's worth asking how much pollution is caused by such travel but it's still there. Should we be rethinking how we visit these places? See #1 and also will the push for more high speed rail be a good thing for the parks if it happens?

Thank you for asking this question and for offering us the opportunity to voice our views.

I don't think it is useful to measure the relevancy of the national parks by the number of visitors or the dollars collected and spent. I agree with two previous posters, one who pointed out that it is the spiritual aspects that we should be focused on, and with Tom, who offered a way to educate and inform people without the need to build more brick and mortar structures, parking lots, and motels to handle more visitors.

We should not take a theme park approach to our national park heritage. I feel it is more important to protect and defend them against deterioration and spoilage, preserving them as places people can go to get away from the stresses of modern life, get back in touch with what is real and beautiful, and renew their connection with the deep, nourishing spirit of nature. That would be "relevant" from my perspective.

The settings pictured in the photos will always be relevant, no matter how few people see them. It is the depth and quality of the experience, not the quantity of viewers, that can make a difference.

I've wrestled with the question as to whether a virtual tour would provide an excuse for someone not to visit, but I feel I have settled this question for myself. First, we all know that a virtual tour is not the same as a real tour, just like how seeing a bear in a zoo versus in the wild is not the same thing. Sure, it's the same animal, but one doesn't get the same feeling from it. Zoos might inspire some interest in the real, wild thing, though, just as a virtual tour might pique some interest in that place for someone who was not aware of it. Websites, webcams, blogs, etc., provide people a way of staying connected with parks when they can't physically be there. The person's interest and values are what matter, not necessarily their constant physical presence in the park. My feeling is that we can reach out to youth and urban populations through web-based media and provide an engaging experience that can inspire interest; the web is where kids go for information now, anyway, so we might as well provide the means for them to connect with parks virtually and use that as a springboard to get them physically into the parks.

I predict that the creation of a National Parks Promotion Council will be a big waste of money.

BUT if Jarvis is serious about increasing visitation by "(1) youth; (2) urban; (3) lower income; and (6) new Americans" the NPS should offer a discount to young people who visit national parks. IE: a Golden Age Passport for people under 25.

But then more Seniors vote than college I don't see this ever happening.

Intresting precept that you have raised. Why visit a natural park when you can visit a virtual park? and all the materials that are available, photos, images,books, etc. on the internet. Certainly you can. But you then remain fixed at your keyboard, inactive, a passive visitor, with only one sense engaged, two at most. The giant redwoods and sequoias have a texture, the geysers at Yellowstone have an oder, the berries by the trail in the Great Smokey Mountains have a sweet flavor....these are experiences that are individual, but are also shared with friends and family when you visit a park in real life. As a nation of immigrants, we have always traveled, seeking what is promised over the horizon and in the journey we created self-reliance, stamina, cooperation and spirit. Don't let your fellow traveler keep you from experiencing the parks with all your sensations...and for those of us that have fewer than 5, the exercie alone has benefits in terms of mental, spiritual and physical health. No matter how fantastic the virtual lands visited by an "avatar" are, in then end, a real person and a real experience is needed to make it relevant.

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