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:
...help 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.