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