America's Summit on National Parks opened with encouragement to continue to grow the National Park System, and to reach out to younger generations with technology, but not to the detriment of real communication with visitors.
During a reception Tuesday evening at an Alexandria, Virginia, waterfront restaurant that overlooked the gleaming skyline of Washington, D.C., an affair that highlighted the best of Virginia's foods and wines, former National Park Service Directors Fran Maniella and Robert Stanton stressed the need to reach younger generations.
While Mr. Stanton said emerging technologies can play a great role in that effort, he also stressed that the Park Service should not replace its interpretive rangers with technology.
Though technology should be maximized to showcase the value of the national parks, "dissemination of information may not be communication," he added.
"We should never diminish the importance of personal communication. Interpretation is not intended to do something for the listener, but to encourage the listener to do something for themselves," said Mr. Stanton, who served as director from August 1997 until January 2001.
The conference, which continues Wednesday and Thursday with day-long workshops delving into such topics as education, wellness, and landscape connectivity, is being sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Hospitality Association. Along with many individuals with connections to those groups, also in attendance Tuesday evening were representatives from national park friends groups from throughout the nation.
Joining Mr. Stanton and Ms. Mainella for a short panel discussion was Alan Latourelle, the chief executive officer of Parks Canada, which just last year marked its centennial. He told the audience that, in the face of diminishing visitation to Canada's parks, his agency approached the centennial with a goal to reach youth and new residents of the country unfamiliar with its parks' offerings.
"Leave your technology at home and come experience the parks" was one of the messages Parks Canada used to connect with youth, said Mr. Latourelle. The point was not to abandon that technology, he said, but to take a break from it to experience the natural wonders of the country.
While Ms. Mainella, NPS director from July 2001 until October 2006, agreed technology can play an important role in gaining new visitors to the parks, she didn't believe it was wise to "turn parks into virtual tours."
"Use the techology to entice the young people into our parks," said the former director. But "we do not want it to consume how we experience the parks."
Jackie Lowey, a former deputy director of the National Park Service who was moderating the panel discussion, said "we need to work to get every child into the parks. But we can't do it alone. If we're not ready to partner, we will not succeed."
Mr. Latourelle added onto that by saying partnerships need to be as multifaceted as possible to succeed, even to the extent of building synergies among various partners.
Ms. Mainella also told the audience that the park system needs to be allowed to continue to grow in size and diversity.
"You need to grow strategically, add critical pieces, like the African Burial Ground (National Monument)," she said. "We need to continue to add these critical resources, natural and cultural."