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Is There A Need to Have the Government Promote National Parks?


Are the national parks in need of better marketing? Ranger talk at Grand Canyon National Park, NPS photo.

Is there a need to promote places that "our woven into our American culture," that require room reservations to be made months, if not a year, ahead of schedule, and which not too long ago gained national exposure through a 12-hour Ken Burns mini-series?

When simply saying "Old Faithful," "Half Dome," or "Grand Canyon" for most instantly conjures iconic landscapes, should the federal government need to invest time on promoting the national parks?

It's a question that rises on occasion in the halls of Congress, where senators and representatives oftentimes wonder what can be done to lure more visitors to the National Park System. Back in 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Stevan Pearce, R-New Mexico, was so concerned about national park visitation that he actually created a "Park Visitation Working Group," was quoted in a Men's Journal article that the National Park Service wasn't particularly interested in visitation, and held some hearings into the visitation "problem."

While visitation to the National Park System hit its high-water mark in 1987, when 287.2 million visitors were counted, traffic did slump to 272.6 million in 2006, when Mr. Pearce's concern was piqued. Since then the annual tally worked its way back to 285.6 million in 2009, a rise attributed in part to the sour economy leading more folks to vacation closer to home, to three entrance-fee-free-weekends Interior Secretary Ken Salazar offered in the summer, and to the building interest surrounding Mr. Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

But no matter what year it is, it seems that if come August you visit Yellowstone National Park for a glimpse of Old Faithful, or stand on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, or venture into the Yosemite Valley to see both Half Dome and El Capitan, you'll wonder what all the clamor about park visitation is about.

And yet, late last year the economic interests behind the parks -- the National Park Hospitality Association -- formed the National Parks Promotion Council, and then less than two weeks ago U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee, and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. George LeMieux, R-Florida, held a hearing on America the Beautiful: Promoting Our National Parks as Travel Destinations.”

“Our National Parks are woven into American culture. They are on ‘must see’ lists for domestic and international travelers and are icons of America,” said Sen. Klobuchar. “But these parks are more than beautiful national resources. They are also important economic resources and increasing tourism at national parks will benefit Minnesota’s local economies and help create jobs.”

Another aspect of promoting the parks, as Sen. LeMieux pointed out, is to raise awareness of the educational value of the National Park System and build appreciation for preserving the environment. Too, in recent years there's been concern over both younger generations and new generations of immigrants not appreciating the parks. Without that appreciation, who will advocate for the parks once the Baby Boomers are gone?

There's no denying that some national parks are economic engines. That's evident in the gateway towns that have sprung up around some of the higher-profile parks, the Yosemites, Yellowstones, Sequoias, and Grand Canyons. And it's evident in the $750 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars the Obama administration funneled to the National Park Service.

Encouraging, promoting, and capturing this economic might can, though, be perilous for the parks. That's evident at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where the Park Service is caught in the middle of a rancorous debate between tourism and environmental interests; at Yellowstone, where the argument over recreational snowmobile use in the park has raged on for more than a decade, and; even Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where development surrounding the park threatens to turn it into a biological island.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, who welcomed the subcommittee hearing on national park tourism, agrees that when it comes to promoting the parks, not all parks need the same level of attention.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of our major national parks are over-used, and that the experience sometimes in the parks is lessened because of that," he said late last week. "Sometimes I’ve said that our major national parks are being loved to death because of the experience the visitor has and also the impact on the ecology of the park.

“So I think the task of the Park Service, No. 1, is to try to lessen that impact and try to do everything they can to make sure that the visitor experience is a better experience," said Sen. Udall, who no doubt sharpened his love for, and appreciation of, the national parks while being raised by his late father, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. "Now, take for example Yellowstone. Most of Yellowstone is not visited at all. This is a magnificent park, it’s a huge one. It’s one of the crown jewels of the park system. And there has to be a way where you can balance these values that I talked about.

“But there are many, many parks that don’t have the over-use situation. Smaller parks that could accommodate more people. And I think there’s a way that the Park Service and all of us that are working on this issue to publicize those parks and maybe spread some of the visitorship to some of these smaller parks.”

If any promotion mandate is handed the Park Service, (which has a tourism office but no budget or authority to formally advertise on behalf of the parks), should it be centered around the Yellowstones, Yosemites, and Grand Canyons of the system, or should lesser-known parks such as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Isle Royale National Park, or Capitol Reef National Park receive the attention? Or would it be more effective if any advertising revolved around off-season park visits or extolling the rich value in backcountry overnight treks (something that just 1.86 million of 2009's 285.6 million visitors made)?

Or, is this simply an unnecessary idea, in light of all the free press the national parks already receive?

Then, too, there's the issue of requiring the Park Service, an agency whose prime mandate under the National Park Service Organic Act is to preserve the parks and their resources "unimpaired" for future generations, to actively work to bring more visitors to parks that, in some cases, are straining to keep up with current traffic.

“There are a lot of contested issues like that with our very popular national parks, and these superintendents are trying to balance all those issues and yet, at the same time, stay committed to the Organic Act, stay committed to the mission of the Park Service, and make sure that they’re not harming the ecology of the particular park,” Sen. Udall said.

“I think we can do both, but I think we do need to be careful to not over-promote a park that’s being over-used, and we need to work very carefully with the superintendent and the Park Service director to make sure that we look at those situations, analyze them seriously, and come up with some solutions to the challenges that we face in the big ones.”

One of those superintendents searching for a solution is Mike Murray, who oversees Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The superintendent, who worked his way up through the ranks in parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglades, and Cape Cod, finds himself in the middle of a contentious argument between environmental groups and anglers who use off-road vehicles to reach their favorite fishing spots along the cape over how much of the cape should be open to ORV traffic.

“I think in recent decades both the Park Service and others have recognized the economic value of the parks. So I think finding the right balance between recognizing and appreciating that the park can be a draw to an area, somehow that has to be tied to appropriate and well-managed use so that it’s just not overrunning the parks with unmanageable use, particularly in sensitive resource areas," Superintendent Murray said.

“So we know, and certainly we’re hearing in our public comments loud and clear, that Cape Hatteras is important to the local economy, which is a tourism economy. We don’t have any industries other than small commercial fishing industry and recreational fishing, but that is tied to being able to access waters to fish. And we have good cultural sites, good state and local park type partners, and venues, so it’s a diverse area for an affordable visit.

“So somehow, it’s one of those issues where parks are great opportunities, but we got to remember the purpose of the parks as stated in the Organic Act. You know, provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and such means that will leave them unimpaired," he pointed out. "And there’s numerous lawsuits and case law and philosophical statements from great conservation leaders over the years that the rights of future generations, when it comes to parks, the rights of future generations are more important than the immediate desires of the present. Frederick Law Olmstead said that in 1865 regarding Yosemite, and that’s never more true than it is today."

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Do we want our national parks to be kept as a private reserve for those elite and in-the-know folks, or do we have the responsibility to make sure that we continue to connect the public to our national parks.

We need to make sure that we educate (yes ‘market’) the parks to the public, inviting them to appreciate and value the park experience to insure support of the parks and the park system.

Without promotion, visitors will only go to the best-know parks at the times that are most appealing (and busiest). Targeted and managed marketing and promotions can disperse visitation to lesser-visited parks and during less-visited times.

This past Wednesday our friend, a prominent Baptist minister, Ph.D, and his wife called me from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was his birthday, and as a result of our book (Legacy on the Land) he'd asked me which of the national parks I'd recommend for him to have his first experience. Happily ensconced in El Tovar, he said "I've been a minister for more than 40 years, and I understand what it means to have a relationship with God. Being here today, I understand what it means to be IN THE PRESENCE of God."

Such a powerful experience and testimony from someone who is hugely influential, gives me great confidence that irrespective of what the agencies do (or don't) the word will get out to Americans of color that we OWN incredible natural treasures, that we have a right to enjoy them and a responsibility to be good stewards of them. The failure of the public land management agencies and related non-governmental/advocacy organization to make the general public aware of the bounty we own, will be condemned by future generations. People cannot love what they do not know, and having changed our entire lives as a result of "accidentally" discovering the park system, my husband and I know what a powerful inducement they are to self-love, citizenship and patriotism. I'm up to my 155th unit, and next week the number will grow by one when we visit Big Thicket in Texas.

Interestingly enough, when Prof. Carolyn Finney was researching her Ph.D thesis on "Black faces, white spaces: African Americans and the national parks," she found that the park service employees interviewed came down on one side or other of the issue, based on their race. African Americans affirmed that the parks needed to do a lot more to raise awareness among people who are not aware or for reasons of history, do not feel that the parks are relevant to their lives. Overwhelmingly, white employees approved the status quo and saw no need for change.

The tragedy is that well-meaning "leaders" who see no need for the agency/federal government/others to publicize the parks and public lands, are effectively presiding over their demise. Why would the growing demographic groups - Americans of color and the young - vote to fund, preserve etc. these treasures if they are, for all intents and purposes, excluded from them? If you don't know they exist, you don't have a CHOICE to avail yourself of what they offer. As a nation, we can and must do better than this, and I for one advocate promoition of the parks and the history of all the racial groups who have been involved with them, as a prime way to rediscover our commonalities AS A NATION.

this is a tricky subject IMO. commenters make good points about how you can market something to death by promoting it, but i think, based on my experiences with natural areas in Arizona in particular -- year of destruction of AZ State Parks : ( -- that we need to promote many other places or people aren't even aware they exist. less people are exploring the world thanks to the entertainment and digital media revolution. i agree less-visited places should be promoted, not only to raise awareness and increase visitation but to keep these places in public's mind. so many others things are constantly competing for our short attention spans, as someone who helps to market tourist opportunities in AZ, i know it's challenging to get people to come out to parks even when you are specifically marketing them. the NPS has been so unfunded for so many years and short staffed the "popular" parks can't handle any more visitors realistically. but i do think marketing and promotion can be an effective tool to get people engaged, the more they develop a relationship with a place, the more likely they might become an advocate for it! a multi agency public/private group in AZ (Be Outdoors) has been trying to get kids involved for the past few years, but it's not easy.

I see that a portion of your issue is not whether or not we promote the parks, but whether the federal government should pay for this promotion. This feels like a case of, "If not me, who?" The fact is that of the 392 national park sites and all the affiliates, only a handful have such steep visitation figures that they require crowd control. We can all name those few—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and so on—but who, besides those who have memorized the list of 392, can name Chiracahua? Fort Bowie? Nicodemus? Congaree? These are all NPS properties that struggle to receive the funding they need to maintain the lands they protect, and part of that funding is based on visitation figures. The more people we bring into the less visited parks, the better they will be maintained and staffed, because their leadership will be able to make a stronger case for funding.

Sadly, the days when Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color promoted the national parks every Sunday to a wide-eyed audience are long gone. Even "See the USA in your Chevrolet" has been replaced by the need to reduce carbon emissions. So why not form a coalition, with a little government funding, to find ways to put the parks back in the front of the public's consciousness? If all this coalition managed to do was to familiarize people with the NPS sites in their own states, a great deal could be accomplished. If they helped get people to pack up and travel across the country to see something completely different, so much the better.

While I think everyone agrees that the visitation levels at NPS sites vary dramatically, we also need to keep in mind that the place our National Parks have in our collective hearts was due to heavy promotion back when the system was being started If that had occurred for our National Forests, they would be viewed the same way. So, when people suggest we should just stay with the "natural flow" of visitors, this natural flow was due to publicity.

As usual, when people talk about national parks they only seem to concentrate on the crown jewel parks, which do get plenty of visitation. Meanwhile at many of the smaller NPS units visitation has been plunging steadily since the early 1990s. Many of the small western parks, particularly historic sites, have seen drops of 25% to 50% percent in the last 15 years. A few examples: Fort Scott NHS, Kansas - 1992: 84,000, 2009: 28,500; Bent's Old Fort NHS, Colorado - 1992: 48,000, 2009: 28,000; Fort Laramie NHS, Wyoming - 1993: 93,000, 2009: 56,000; Scottsbluff NM, Nebraska - 1991: 186,000, 2009: 121,000; Pecos NHP, New Mexico - 1992: 48,000; 2009: 34,500. These parks DO need more publicity. These are the real places where our history happened. If no one comes, no one will care. And these parks will lose relevance and, eventually, funding - they may go the way of the small state parks and historic sites in New York, Arizona, etc. - they may be closed.

I agree with the sentiments of NPS not spending money on advertising or promoting, but allowing others to do so.

However, speaking as someone working on the "unimpaired for future generations" part, your paragraph 17 misses half of the mandate from the organic act, the half about "enjoyment". Certainly the NPS interpretation of that mandate included promotion for much of the 20th century.

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