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Does Today's Technology Offer A Better Connection, Or A Disconnect, To Enjoying National Parks?


Is the Albright Visitor Center at Yellowstone an anachronism in the 21st century? NPS photo.

Technological advances have made it relatively easy to trace wildlife habitats across the National Park System, to track reclusive wolverines, and even to recruit moose into the study of climate change.

But how much should the National Park Service rely on technology to connect visitors to the national parks once they reach a park?

That's a highly relevant question not only in light of the growing number of "apps" that are turning smartphones into pocket guidebooks, but especially in the wake of a recent address Park Service Director Jon Jarvis gave to architectural students at the University of Virginia. It was a talk, coincidentally enough, that came on the heels of a Park Service study into "live interpretation" in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In discussing the role of landscape architecture and architectural design in national parks with the students, Director Jarvis raised the question of how useful and pertinent visitor centers, with their shelves of guidebooks, maps, and park memorabilia, rangers and volunteers ready to answer questions, and orientation films, are in the 21st century.

“We have long believed that the visitor center was
the gateway to the park; the first stop to learn all that the park had
to offer – where to go and what to see," he said.

"But maybe that’s not necessarily the case today," went on a Park Service release that described the director's talk.

“Today’s visitors are more technologically attuned than ever before. Many people – and not just those under 30 – plan their visits online, using the National Park Service’s website and other sources to find interactive maps, watch videos of the trails they will hike, listen to podcasts about the wildlife they will encounter, and study online exhibits on the history of the place," said Director Jarvis. “They download everything they need to iPhones, iPads, Droid, devices that also tell them where they are and where they want to be, and allow them to share the experience in real time with friends and family anywhere on the planet.”

While the director, according to the release, wasn't offering a euology for visitor centers, he did wonder if the current model makes sense in terms of connecting rangers face-to-face with visitors.

“The visitor center as we know it today was born in the 1950s,” he said. “After World War II, returning U.S. soldiers found a patriotic country with a strong sense of national identity. America had prosperity, cars, and a new interstate highway system. Veterans saw in the national parks their heritage and their birthright; the national parks saw a surge in visitation. We had a building boom in national parks called Mission 66 to meet demands of unprecedented visitor numbers.”

The director did not describe the visitor center of the future, leaving that issue dangling. However, in the news release he sounded convinced that the Internet is one of, if not the, key to connecting people to parks.

Today the National Park Service is five years away from its 100th anniversary and U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they return home they experience the same desire to visit these powerful American shrines.

“While we don’t have a new federal highway system, we do have the Internet, which may bring us closer together than our father’s Chevy ever could,” Jarvis said. “America remains a prosperous nation, but the demands on our federal budget are many, so the likelihood of an ambitious national park building program are dim, especially in light of our now $10 billion maintenance backlog."

Perhaps it is time to reassess some long-held assumptions, Jarvis said

Ironically, a few months before Director Jarvis talked about technological advances that make it easy for visitors to get park information without meeting a ranger, a study published in PARKScience, a Park Service publication that integrates "research and resource management in the national parks," underscored the value of human connections between rangers and visitors.

Using interpretive ranger programs at Great Smoky as a case study, the authors of The Benefits of Live Interpretive Programs to Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Marc J. Stern, Robert B. Powell, and Cathleen Cook -- noted that such programs: to reveal to park visitors the deeper meanings associated with parks’ cultural and natural resource. They can enhance visitors’ enjoyment by providing entertaining experiences or better orientation to the available sights, resources, and activities. They can effect emotional connections to landscapes, to animal or plant life, and to the history being interpreted. They can influence visitors’ attitudes to the park they are visiting, toward the National Park Service, or toward an ecosystem, a historical event, a social movement, or the environment or nature in general. Research and theory also suggest that interpretation can influence visitors’ behaviors both during their visits and after they have left the park.

According to the article, which was published in February, more than 80 percent of the visitors who responded to a survey said ranger-led tours and programs "were important to the mission of the National Park Service."

More significantly, in light of the Park Service's desire to connect visitors to the parks and make them more aware of environmental systems and threats to them, the study also found that "(N)early 90% of respondents reported that attending a ranger-led program increased their appreciation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the National Park Service. More than 60% of respondents indicated that their awareness of environmental issues and this country’s cultural heritage increased."

(As a side note, the survey conducted for this research indicated that a greater percentage of park visitors -- more than 26 percent -- attend ranger-led programs than was previously thought (roughly 9 percent).)

So what are we to think?

Is today's smartphone technology as vital to the future of the national parks as are on-the-ground, walking and talking rangers?

Perhaps before we can definitively answer that question another study is required, one that examines the habits of smartphone visitors once they pass through a park's entrance gates.

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Interesting that there is now a new cell tower 400 yards from the South Rim to enable the cell phone tours and now cell phones can get a signal deep into the Canyon at many spots.  Where is the Sierra Club on this?  There is just so much BS involved in todays discussions on the environment and such.  Eventually most all will have to realize what all this is doing and it's not good.

Facebook and Twitter are on their way out? I'd love to see your evidence for that, considering that both are rapidly growing in userbase and pageviews.

One thing that has not been mentioned is the inability of the NPS to keep up with these new technologies.  We started doing podcasts years after they had reached their peak of popularity.  Now parks are into facebook and twitter.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but they are on their way out too.  If my grandmother is doing it, then it most certainly is not the latest technology.  The federal govt will always be about 5 steps behind the "real world" in terms of technological advances.  I fully expect that 2-3 years from now, you will be able to skype with a ranger--long after young people have moved on to the next greatest thing.  That's not to say that the park service shouldn't utilize new methods of reaching out to visitors, but we shouldn't delude ourselves that it is cutting edge.  Parks simply don't have the staff or budgets to move that quickly.  That is our reality and--like the constant tide of new technology--is not going to change.  

I'm an interpretive ranger with the Forest Service (yes, we have some!) in Alaska, and am leading efforts to get social - including Twitter and Facebook pages for my home base, the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Juneau. I'm also heading to graduate school at Indiana University in the fall, with the goal of researching interpretive applications for social media and smartphones.
We cannot post signs at park entrances that say "No Twitter, No Smartphones." These technologies are going inside our boundaries, whether we like it or not. We can stick our fingers in our ears and say "lalalala, I can't hear you, fie on your newfangled gadgets" or we can find appropriate and interesting ways to engage our audience with them. I'm pretty sure I know which of those is going to be more effective.
Moreover, even if we could wave a magic wand and ban these technologies, I believe we'd be blocking out an amazing opportunity to more deeply connect visitors with the resource we're protecting and interpreting. Instead of reading off a printed brochure for a self-guided trail, wouldn't a video clips of a ranger explaining each stop feel more engaging? What if we allow visitors to tell their own stories of exploration and discovery through a curated Flickr photostream?
Of course these technologies cannot, and should not, replace personal interpretation. But they can and should supplant existing non-personal interpretation products.
The final argument is this: those of my generation (I'm 27) and younger will expect these products as a matter of course. We have grown up with computers and the Internet and having 3G on one's hip anywhere. If park interpreters willfully pretend these technologies are just some passing fads, the field of interpretation will inevitably completely lose touch with the public it serves - with disastrous consequences for both the profession and the resources we interpret.

It goes both ways.  I take youth groups to national parks.  Let's say they take pictures and share them with friends on Facebook -- the technology is exposing more people to the parks. That's all to the good.  Now, let's say they spend so much time on Facebook with their friends that they are mentally at home, not in the park.  That's a bad thing.

I've had kids call back home saying, "Look at me! I'm on the Old Faithful webcam!" -- and their folks were so pleased they took a family trip back there the next summer.  Others have missed out on wildlife sightings because they wouldn't look up from their device.

It all depends.

I don't agree on the "staying relevant" argument.  I've had many parents and grand parents that have brought their kids and grandchildren for Canyon Mule Adventures to aid in showing what real interaction feels like and break from destructive obsessions that feed on instant gratification.  The transformations by parents and children is nothing less than miraculous!  The NO CELL PHONE conversing on these mule rides is for many good reasons and not all that different (if any) from yaking or texting in church.  I hear there's been a culture change from those that want to continue on down that path but it's difficult to convince me the state of things is anything that we should be doubling down on.

Excellent topic! I think an important part of this conversation is the youth. These are the digital natives; the young adults who are, for better or for worse, growing up in a world in which they are always connected via the Internet and have multiple devices to interface with (i.e. laptop, smartphone, iPod, etc.). They experience much of their world and life via technology.
If the national parks are to be relevant in the minds of the youth, NPS must develop a better means to interface with them, using the mediums which the youth are most comfortable with. This by no means diminishes the need for children to "unplug" and to feel-see-and-experience the natural beauty the parks have to offer, however the "bridge" for these experiences with the youth is increasingly found in the palm of their hands. 

Dave Crowl:
Great discussion! I think the NPS needs to adopt a rule that they use some sot of Parkitecture that cell towers need to blend in to their surroundings. I have seen places in Colorado where the cell phone towers looked like Pine Trees. If they adopt a policy that reviewed placement and style of each tower, they could minimalize most unsightly views.

    Some results are better looking than others:

I understand that the majority of phone towers at NPS sites are disguised as trees. However - it gets somewhat complicated. I remember when there was a proposal to put a tower near Grant Grove at Kings Canyon NP, there was resistance. I think part of the reason was to serve the inholding community of Wilsonia. The NPS even put up a fight when there were proposals to put up a phone tower in Gardiner, Montana. That's a place with real people living ordinary lives, and who might actually want decent cell phone coverage. I thought that the reason given for NPS opposition was the proximity to the Roosevelt Arch entrance. Of course I recall one could stand at the Arch and see the electronic scoreboard at Gardiner High school.

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