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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?


The National Park Service is responsible for much more than just the actual national parks. It is also directly responsible for upholding the perpetuity clauses of the Land and Water Conservation Act, a federal law that protects parks in perpetuity--from your local park down the street to state parks to national parks.

NPS is losing its credibility with a lot of people--including minority populations and park advocates-- in its recent decisions regarding conversions of local parks protected by the Land and Water Conservation Act that are in some of the poorest minority communities in the country. Two examples of conversions, of the local parks near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY, and Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, Michigan (Michigan's poorest community and 93% African-American) were challenged in federal court, where the minority community/citizens sued the National Park Service over its decisions to allow conversions of the parkland to private uses by major corporations--for the Yankees to build their new stadium, and for Whirlpool Corporation to build a golf course in a 90+ year old city park dedicated to be a park forever. These decisions were made by NPS during the Bush administration, but the case regarding Jean Klock Park is being defended still by the Obama administration. The Jean Klock Park case (Weiss et. al. v. Salazar) is pending.

I testified to the US House Appropriations Committee on the need for the NPS to continue its legal obligations to protect parks assisted by LWCF....and without money for the program, the compliance part of the law cannot happen.

See the NPS's website on it:

Screwing minority communities out of their local parkland is no way to build support for the agency or promote use of parks. It's the height of hypocrisy.

See: to see read about the case against the NPS.


We're way off track, IMHO, but perhaps the thread of relevancy has just been run into the ground.

One more observation. I'm an old fan of Freeman Tilden and the adage he once quoted is the one I have found true through my entire career:

"Through interpretation, understanding;
Through understanding, appreciation;
Through appreciation, protection."

That can be accomplished in many, many ways.

ymp and imtnbke, you give me too much credit for ignorance. I am indeed familiar with the East Bay Regional Park District. And every time I hike Briones, which is about once or twice a year, I see, in addition to hawks and the occasional coyote (but no rattlesnakes, so far), a goodly number of cows as well as plenty of cow flop. It should have dawned on me that imtnbke was talking about the regional parks, not Point Reyes. As I said; my bad.

It sounds like grazing is necessary in those lands, but why can't it be the species that were there before Europeans arrived rather than the destructive cattle? I'm willing to eat venison and elk instead of beef.

Who the heck would want to farm deer here? Seriously - there's no shortage of black-tailed deer in the Bay Area. I see them on a weekly basis and there are incidents where drivers hit them.

I'm not necessarily convinced that they're necessary. Tilden Regional Park (east of Berkeley) is the crown jewel of the EPRPD, and the only cattle they have are penned living at the Little Farm. Locally we have places like Mt Wanda (part of John Muir NHS) which appears similar in appearance (not too much overgrowth) to the regional parks with cattle grazing. I'm not sure what the NPS is doing differently.

It seems to me that the more people frequent the parks, the more likely they are to support them financially. So, Mr. Jarvis efforts should be supported. Now, the whole idea of giving discounts to youngsters seems a bit silly to me. I don't think that the issue is money (usually). Whether a kid goes to a national park or not has probably more to do with interest. The issue is really how to get kids interested in the outdoors. Most people I know (that would include my wife) never set foot in the local parks (OTOH, the cows do suck the appeal out). Long term, it seems like an uphill battle.

Thanks, y p w, for the link to that East Bay Express article, "Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out." That was most interesting.

It sounds like grazing is necessary in those lands, but why can't it be the species that were there before Europeans arrived rather than the destructive cattle? I'm willing to eat venison and elk instead of beef.

YPW wrote: "I'm pretty sure that the reference from imtnbke would be to the East Bay Regional Park District."

You are correct! And thank you for those links; I'll look at them. See also

Bob Janiskee:
My bad. I'm going to leave my comment in there, though, because deleting it would remove the comments that follow it.

Nah - you had a fair response. I live in the area in question and hike the parks, so I knew. I wouldn't expect that most people reading this would understand that "park agency" meant the East Bay Regional Park District. I've tried hiking some of the trails where there are cattle grazing, and they can become these strange barely passable mud bogs or severely widened trails.

However - the NPS does allow some cattle grazing near publicly accessible trails. Bolinas Ridge (Golden Gate NRA but administered by Point Reyes NS) has a long trail where there are cattle (with gates). I also don't think they normally want cattle in public areas, but once I passed a cow right on the road to the oyster farm. I don't think that technically was in the pastoral areas.

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