Thirteen hours at America's Summit on National Parks raised questions about video games as an enticement to lure youth into the parks, in-park history lessons, and how the economy affects affection for the national parks.
Those and other issues filled Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in the heart of Washington, D.C., where talk of how best to leverage support for the national parks movement as the National Park Service draws near its centennial in 2016 dominated the talk.
Perhaps the most provocative, if not the most controversial, address of the day was made by Erik Huey, senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the brand-name videogame makers. During a panel discussion on Trends, Priorities, and Values: Gaining Broad Support, Mr. Huey opened his talk by prefacing it with a question -- "Isn't the video game industry the enemy?" -- before pointing out that many of the latest games get participants up off the couch to bowl, play tennis, and dance.
The fact of the matter is, he told the more than 325 participants who showed up for the conference, is "you can play your videogames outdoors and you can play videogames that make you move."
Mr. Huey, saying the parks movement had a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the gaming industry, pointed out that videogaming was a $25.1 billion industry in 2010.
"We're big, we're pervasive, and we're on the move," he said.
But while the gaming official talked of creating videogames with national park "overlays" that would take the games into the parks, Sally Jewell, the CEO of the outdoor gear retailer REI, made it clear where she saw the gaming industry's role with getting youth outdoors and into the national parks when she rose to moderate a panel on the economic benefits of national parks and their programs.
"We don't want to thrive by selling outdoor videogames," she said, adding that while videogaming might be a $25.1 billion industry, the outdoor industry generates $230 billion in sales a year, "almost ten times the video game industry."
"Yet we are not perceived as an important economic engine," Ms. Jewell lamented.
While that was one of the high points of the day, it was not the only one.
* Interior Secretary Ken Salazar served as a cheerleader of sorts during his short keynote address, pointing out that economic studies have ranked outdoor recreation No. 2 behind only health care in terms of job creation. "The reason we are so relevant," the secretary said, "is because we are a job-creation agency."
* During the lunch break, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was told by Geoff Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, that when the economy wallows, support for national parks goes up.
* Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said that during its first 100 years, the agency "protected parks and waited for people to come. In the second century, we need to take parks to the people." He added a moment later that, "this country needs the national parks and programs they provide probably more than they ever have in history."
* Gary Machlis, the science advisor to Director Jarvis, told the audience that "let a park degrade from neglect or over-exhuberant development, and we're all diminished."
During one of the afternoon's breakout sessions, James Percoco, an award-winning history teacher at West Springfield (Virginia) High School, stressed the importance of placing students into the environment to help them learn. In his case, he takes students to Gettysburg National Military Park and has them research one of the soldiers and then present that history to their classmates in the field.
"Historic sites offer students an opportunity to wrestle with actual history, vs. the history of our imaginations," Mr. Percoco said. "Sites challenge us, and they should challenge us."
There were discussions of BioBlitzes sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, of residence camps that allow students to spend more than a few days inside a park getting to understand the landscape, and "Teacher-Ranger-Teacher" programs that provide teachers with the skills to enhance their lesson plans against a national park backdrop.
New models for the "next generation" of national parks also were discussed, as was the economic value of parks and connecting urban communities with parklands.
Rather than trying to rush through these stories piecemeal, we're going to take some extra time to gather additional material for them. Watch for them on the Traveler in the days and weeks ahead.