Sometimes what goes on in Las Vegas deserves to be spread beyond the casino halls and hotel walls. I recently was able to attend the Association of Partners for Public Lands conference in "Sin City" and came away impressed by the work being done to interpret our national parks.
APPL is an association of associations – cooperating associations such as the Great Smoky Mountains Association-- that operate bookstores in national parks and develop interpretive and educational materials, and friends groups, such as Friends of the Smokies, that raise funds to support projects and initiatives in the parks.
In the Smokies, the two groups are distinct and separate. In smaller parks, one group might both fundraise and operate bookstores. As their mission explains, APPL members are dedicated to public understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of America’s natural and cultural heritage.
This is my third year as a board member of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and I’ve finally bubbled up the priority list and qualified to attend the conference. Most of the attendees are from Western parks, and many superintendents and chief interpreters also attended.
Here are some highlights of the conference.
Andy Goodman, the first keynote speaker, talked about story telling as a best practice.
"Telling stories is our best communication tool," said Mr. Goodman, a communications consultant. "Narrative is powerful because it is part of our history, identity and how we remember."
To demonstrate that, Mr. Goodman asked the audience, “Why didn’t Peter Pan grow up?”
Some answered because he was male, a response that generated a lot of laughter.
"But if you go back to the original story by J.M. Barrie, when Wendy asks orphan Peter why he never grew up, he says that it's because he never had any stories," Mr. Goodman pointed out. "It's by the process of listening that we grow up."
"As adults, we’re told that stories are soft and anecdotal," Mr. Goodman explained. "But stories have more impact. Facts should be presented as stories, not as straight facts. Numbers numb, jargon jars but stories get stored."
I left with the understanding that as supporters of parks, we need to excite people and explain:
* Why am I called to do this work?
* Why is my cause your cause?
* Why must we act now?
Hitchhiker's Guide to Donation and Fundraising
How do we encourage visitors to support the parks financially? The medium amount of charitable giving annually in the United States is between $1,300 to $2,000 per family, but most of that goes to religious organizations.
To encourage giving to the parks, cooperating associations and friends groups often create events that connect visitors to their park. For example:
* At Discover Northwest, a non-profit that raises funds for a variety of public lands entities, including Olympic National Park, they sell “Life is good” T-shirts with their Olympic logo on the back. It's a very popular item in their bookstores.
* Another association started a lecture series where their members could interact with researchers and authors.
* One friends group invited plein air artists to set up in the park and paint. When they have a art show, they give part of the proceeds to the park.
The presence of park rangers is very powerful at these events, especially when they wear their flat hats. "Even a respected board member reverts to being a five-year old when a ranger in uniform is around," said one panel member.
One fundraising activity in particular hit home - the 734 club. This past summer a 30-something man named Jake Bramante was the first person to hike all the trails in Glacier National Park in a single season.
The Glacier Association group supported him. Mr. Bramante put comments on Facebook and tweeted and is now giving talks about his experience. Now the Glacier Association wants to start a 734 Club to encourage people to hike the park and use this as a fundraiser. Exactly how they will structure the event is still under discussion, but they're very optimistic about the popularity of this hiking challenge.
Similarly Point Reyes National Seashore Association is setting up a Hiking Challenge. The association is working to create a 50-mile challenge, an easier challenge for families, and a 150-mile challenge, which is about the number of trail miles they have. When the hiker has finished the particular challenge, he or she will get a certificate for a donation to the Association.
I was stunned.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 800 miles of trail. As of now, 334 people, including me, have done all the trails in the Smokies. Many have done it multiple times and Friends of the Smokies has never made a penny from them or the Challenge. By now, it’s such old news that hikers can’t even get written up in our local press for finishing. The 900 Mile Club is run by two men who just send out the certificate for $15. Friends of the Smokies doesn’t get any of that money because it is not connected to the Challenge.
The closing banquet and awards ceremony was hosted by Joe Wiegand, the Teddy Roosevelt reprisor. I've seen this master story teller twice before and he doesn't get old.
Mr. Wiegand didn't just fly in and fly out of the APPL Conference. He spent two days as Teddy Roosevelt, walking around the exhibits, going to workshops and having lunch with attendees. In the hallways and on stage, he was as good and as energetic as ever.
Park partners sent in their nominations in various categories. Here are the winners:
Theme Category Winner: Great Smoky Mountains National Park 2012 Wall Calendar by Great Smoky Mountains Association
Education Program or Project: Zion National Park's Youth Education Initiative by Zion Natural History Association
Special Interest Publication: WASPs by Pacific Historic Parks
Visitor Guides: Exploring Michigan's Historic Copper Country by Isle Royale & Keweenaw Parks Association
Audio-Visual: America's Wildest Refuge: Discovering the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Alaska Geographic
Partnership Program or Project Winner: The New Oconaluftee Visitor Center by Great Smoky Mountains Association
Children's Media: The America's First Project by the Devils Tower Natural History Association
Non-partner published: The Plants of Acadia National Park by Friends of Acadia
Membership/Fundraising Program or Project Winner: Smokies Life Magazine by Great Smoky Mountains Association
General Interest Publications (revenue $1 million and under): Sojourns Issues 5:1 Collections and 5:2 Preservation by Peaks, Plateaus and Canyons Association
Complimentary Publications Winner: Smokies Guide: The Official Newspaper of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by [url=http://www.thegreatsmokymountains.org]Great Smoky Mountains Association
Commemorative Program or Project: Crissy Field 10th Anniversary Project by Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
General Interest Publications (revenues over $1 million): Mount Rushmore Memories by Mount Rushmore Society
And the overall winner, the APPL Excellence Award Winner, was the America's First Project by Devils Tower Natural History Association.