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.


I'm a fan of the website. Not just the obvious "plan your visit" parts but also the photo and multimedia galleries, the digitized background publications, the nature and science section and more. Some parks have "virtual tours" online, that could certainly be expanded into location based information to be accessed with a smartphone or similar device on the spot. It could supplement interpretive signs and markers, get updates much easier, faster and yes, cheaper than wood and paint.

Unless the NPS opens a unit in Steve Jobs' garage, keep the technology out of visitor centers. Keep the experience pure and unadulterated, as if every visitor were the first to ever lay eyes on the landscape before them. Keep up the great work with the ranger-led experiences. They are the best.

Not everybody has mobile devices, whatever they are called. Not everybody wants cell towers ruining all of those wonderful sights. Sure, it would be cheaper than having a body there, but the days of "using dad's Chevy" was far superior than modern technology. I " surf the net" at home, to find out what places have to offer that interests me, but I still want that person at whatever place I might be at, to let me know more personal information. I do not want to own a modern "device". So, if modern times is going to lead to everyone must having such an item, I guess I will be an armchair traveler. There must always continue to be at least a choice, for a person, or the app.

Embrace technology or be left behind. If we truly leave it like it should be then Old Faithfull would not have a deck built around it. "Leave only footprints" is only the beginning of the NPS motto. The complete statement should be "Leave only footprints, except if it involves lodging, paved campgrounds, golf courses, offices, fee collection stations, miles and miles of roads, parking lots, non native signage, miles of worn trailsystems, and whatever else we think of as long as it does not take away from the aforementioned beautifications added by the NPS."

If gasoline prices keep climbing, it may soon be that the only way Americans can afford to see their parks is via Internet.

Unless, of course, you are a CEO of one of our health insurance companies, or a bank, or an oil company, or . . . . .

I just spent a week away from computers, cell phones, and the internet. For entertainment, I had views of the Eastern Deciduous Biome covering the Snowbird Mountains and other ranges of North Carolina. In the mornings, I enjoyed attending guided wildflower walks into the Cherokee National Forest and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. In the evenings, I enjoyed reading nature and adventure books in a rustic mountain-top library and when the clouds dissipated, taking my telescope out to enjoy the night sky.

Today, back at work, I feel totally refreshed. My preference: Keep the gadgets out of the parks.

However, for public outreach the use of the internet, with creative use of videos, virtual rangers, digital nature notes, etc. have their place, as does public discussion of park issues via or .

"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"...I have to disagree with this! The internet, and computers in general, are more likely to separate and disengage people than they are to bring them together. Technology has a way of isolating people like never before. That being said, I think technology is one way of reaching people and one way of offering an experience at a National Park.

I truly think that if we lose the intimate contact (i.e. rangers and visitor center) available at National Parks, the experience will be cheapened and diminished. Can we offer a kiosk in the visitor center for folks to upload maps to their phones? Can we offer downloads on the NPS websites? Sure! But this is supplemental material and should NEVER replace human contacts at the park.

Visitor Centers are focal points at the vast majority of parks, and should not be swept under the rug because modern technology is "more convenient". I have looked at many, many visitor surveys and the vast majority of the respondents state that they stopped at the visitor center on their visit (depending on the park, up to 98%). What a loss that would be. Although Jarvis states that VC's are still important, he was telling the future architects of this country, that in reality, they are not.

Gotta say the internet is a tremendous help in planning a trip. Just got a reply to a question about Rocky Mtn Park's Trail Ridge Road conditions; took a virtual tour of the fiery furnace at Arches; checked out HI/LO forecasts at several CO/UT locations; etc. etc. etc.

Also can't say enough good things about the NPS website. Clean-looking, informative, and no popups.

I don't accept the either/or construct but prefer a mix. Pre-trip research is an obvious use, but I'd love to see a few in-park applications. Up-to-the-minute weather updates are crucial for those of us going on lengthy hikes, for example, especially when we use secondary or tertiary trails. And when taking off on a desert hike at 7 a.m. -- well before the visitor center opens -- I'd like to be able to check some kind of device to see if water is still available at the rest stops or if I need to carry more of my own. Are there unexpected road closures? Trail closures? Animal sightings that affect Park use? I've encountered all of these things at Parks, and they weren't all on the newspapers we get when we enter the Park. Info on the "state of the park at this moment" should be available at kiosks in or just outside buildings that people are likely to encounter as they use the Park away from the visitor centers and during the hours that the centers are closed. This does not necessarily mean more cell towers and the like, it means making a free info system available where there is already electricity.

The ranger talks and the other information we can get from rangers greatly enhance visits to Parks. This is not mutually exclusive with tech, but technology is a tool and no substitute for human judgment. I'll give another example: in 2009, we took my then-76-year-old mother to Yellowstone. Mom is in good shape for her age, but she's afraid of falling. So we would go to the visitor centers and talk to the rangers about what a fit-but-not-athletic 76-year-old who's afraid of scree but not much else could do in the way of a 3-hour hike. The rangers talked to Mom for a moment, then gave us suggestions. As a result, we went on some great hikes and Mom had a wonderful time. Could a computer help us in the same way? Possibly, but it would be too formulaic IMO.

What Jarvis needs to do is sit down for an extended period of time with some of his 20-something rangers and pick their brains. The "technology generation" will likely have some great ideas the rest of us could never conceive of.

Well said, Lee.

As someone working with the NPS' websites and social media, I still would rather talk to a person at the visitor center then sit in the parking lot watching a podcast. I totally agree wih the earlier statements that the internet is a great resource for research ahead of time. When I reach the park or historic site, talking to a human and seeing a program is a much more personal connection.

Planning your trip is one thing, executing it safely and successfully is a completely differrent animal. If people get even the slightest notion that their techno-prowess is going to save them once "on the trail" and removed from the relative safety of the immediate vicinity of the visitor's center you had better start expanding the number of SAR units across the system. That's why I'm still and always will remain vehemently against the availabilty of gadgets within park boundries. People lose whatever minimal sense they came with and believe that some beacon exists to salvage a poorly planned or executed (or just plain boneheaded) stroll into nature. The parks are truly a wonderland but should NEVER be treated with anything less than the utmost in respect, lest evil befall ye. And it will. Happens every year. Too many times. And mostly due to carelessness, over-confidence and just plain poor judgement. All of which are nothing but encouraged by the use of most hand-held technology in the parks. Quite certainly there are good uses of specific program formats, including descriptions of flora and fauna and GENERAL trail information. But it just appears that people don't understand the limitations that are inherent to technology and thus they expect (even rely upon) their gadgets to supercede the use of common sense and observation that are required while even casually visiting our park system.

Case in point......during the past 5 or so years you wouldn't even begin to believe the number of idiots I've encountered texting (or maybe emailing, whatever) while hiking. If your personal contacts are that important, stay home. Or at the very least have the decency not to endanger the rest of us with your ignorant behaviors. Or better yet, just get it over with quickly and fall off the trail at the top, not half-way down.

Nothing beats a live NPS ranger giving a live talk outside in the National Park. They are the best most lively talks - professors (and I was one of them) could learn from them. Rangers should be teaching education courses.

Still the Park website are very informative. I remember that before the web when I used to write a letter to each park I wanted to visit for a park brochure and any other information I could wring out of them. It's not difficult now to come prepared with some information about the park and not ask the perennial question.

"What is there to do around here?"
Danny Bernstein

This sign popped up on the South Rim of Grand Canyon NP about the same time the most "interactive and meaningful " experience to visitors of the Park was diminished by 75%. Like so many things today, we're headed in the wrong direction and a correction is needed, I believe.

These devices augment the NPS experience for many visitors, especially those who are considered part of the digital native generation (those born after 1996 who do not know a world without the Internet). Just as you can choose to skip the park film and go for a hike, you can choose to turn off your cell phone. For many, the value and convenience of checking out weather, trail conditions, and names of wildflowers through their smartphone is a great way to experience and care for a place more deeply. If the NPS is to remain relevant, it needs to welcome the digital native generation through the tools it is comfortable with. If an interactive map and brochure makes an experience more rich and encourages someone to share this experience through photos posted on Facebook, why would the NPS shy away from this?

Question, Ranger 01101011100: For some of that data to be viewed -- weather reports, trail and stream conditions -- wouldn't a cellphone signal be required? And if so, will the NPS soon be permitting more cell towers throughout parks to ensure signals are available in areas currently off the grid?

This is a national park topic about which I get pretty excited. Thanks for covering it, Kurt!

Technology (be it websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, iPhone and iPad applications, and etceteras) and real-life interactions (via visitor centers, interpretive programs, the conversations that result from roving rangers, and etceteras) are absolutely inclusive of each other. The National Park Service has given every indication, both on the service-wide level and on a park-to-park basis, that it will continue to embrace this mutual inclusion, as well as new opportunities to connect with visitors that present themselves in the future.

This has been the case in national parks before the technology boat started floating to shore. The Smokies study referred to in this article shows that less than 20% of folks in the Smokies at a given time attend a formal interpretive program. This statistic is not unlike similar studies that have been conducted in national parks throughout the service. That this, the formal interpretive program is meaningful to a select demographic of folks visiting our national parks. This kind of statistic is what has and is inspiring a diversification of national park interpretive programming to that which extends beyond the formal interpretive program to Spanish interpretation, roving interpretation, staffed interpretation stations at popular user areas, and etceteras. That is, before there was stuff like computers, the National Park Service was already adapting its ways to meet the changing needs of its visitors.

I hear a fair bit of polarization talk in the comments here, that the options for connecting with visitors in national parks are either/or/this only/that only. Anyone who has spent a season serving as an interpretive ranger in a national park probably cringes at the thought of such polarization. The idea behind connecting with people is, as always, to meet every kind of visitor where they are. Doing this means that the National Park Service works to do so in always-evolving ways.

It's unfair for those of us who take a traditional stance toward the way we interact with a national park to judge folks who use technology to do so. That a person is on a trail with their iPhone is perfectly acceptable, y'all! Many birders I know today key out birds using Audubon's iPhone application, as just one example of the on-trail usefulness of technology.

And, we who work best with the most modern forms of technology, we cannot judge those who want to talk to a real-life ranger to get the scoop on a national park. Some folks want their information from the living, breathing source!

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. New Technology reaches out to the younger generation more so than retired set; my kids are way more advanced with their cell phone capabilities than I am. Guide books, maps, trail and road closures and google are all things that can enhance my trips(all on my phone). They could easily put bar codes on signs for links to more info (My phone has a bar code reader) These are not things in the future, they are now. If those in charge are living in the past, maybe we need some younger people working for the NPS. I am all for keeping the visitors center. I enjoy the history, dispays, ranger talks etc... Do not get rid of them, but just enhance them. They need to help the old timer with lots of info...but they can help the wired people with where the info can be had and they can go back to helping the unwired.
Dave Crowl

About that Grand Canyon audio tour sign: it's along the South Rim in the area where most of the nonhiking tourists take their photos before tracking down lunch, not on the hiking trails below the rim.

This speaks to another issue -- there are those of us who are hard-core Park users, and then there's the majority of visitors. Technology will most enhance the visits of those who never go off the beaten path, who arrive via bus, who plan to visit 6 Parks in 7 days, etc. Anything that makes the Parks more intriguing to that crowd, and encourages them to stay longer, learn more, and return, is a plus in my book.

Park visitors have differing perspectives, interests, and needs. If technology makes any group or groups of visitors appreciate the Parks more, it helps meet the greater goal of expanding their appreciation of the importance of the NPS and the Parks in our culture.

I love all the new technology despite the fact that I don't have a cell phone for personal reasons ( I worked on developing the stuff and got quite sick of it). However, I download podcasts, videos, audio tours and whatever I can find for the parks I am interested in. I visit many parks via their webcams and love it. Most of my bookmarks are for parks and associated information.

There is at least one park who has either installed or plans to install webcams outside the normal visitor area - but they aren't going to let the public view them. I really resent this. Number one, I helped pay for them. Number two, I can't visit the parks as often as I would like and really enjoy viewing them.

When I do get to physically visit a park I rely on maps and books for getting around - but I have already made my plans and done my research via the internet. The day will soon be here when I can't physically visit parks anymore. I hope that I will always be able to visit via the net.

I'm with those who point out that this is not an either/or issue ... use technology appropriately, use personal services appropriately. I have to smile at the comment somewhere above about leaving technology out of the park but preserving visitor centers ... visitor centers are already a mediation of the park experience, with exhibits, books, videos, etc. It's just that we're comfortable with them and many of us are not so comfortable with digital technology. And part of what we're comfortable with is a linear way of telling a story ... start the exhibit here, open the book to the front, come in at the beginning of the video, all of which have been linearly designed by their creators. The Internet allows user-directed, random-access, multi-directional access to information and there's a growing population of young people who are accustomed to gathering their information that way ... their way, not our way.
Most of all, I think we should use electronic resources as supplements to the on-site experience, either replacing it for the many who will never get to a site or providing pre- and post-visit information to those who do visit. Plus, like the books on the shelves in the bookstore, this is a way to add more dimensions to the value of the park's resources ... no visitor ever gets ALL the stories a park has to offer.
Finally, online information, whether accessed in the park or a thousand miles away, is an inexpensive way of letting the public understand the importance of the park's resources ... building a constituency to support the preservation of those resources.

It could be that information is over rated! REAL experiences are under rated ...and even to be avoided, it would seem. Let's give both the attention they deserve and let humbling be a part of the experience:). I'm with REAL INTERACTIVE on this.

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.

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.

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.

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'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.

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.

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.

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.