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What Must The National Park Service Do To Improve Its Web Presence?

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Bummer. 

The Internet is the currency of the media world these days, with smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops tied into it to get the latest news and information. While the National Park Service is promoting its social media tools, and has greatly improved its websites in recent months, there still are some weak links.

A good example of this need surfaced just the other day, when it was announced that "Tuskegee Institute NHS, Tuskegee Airmen NHS and Selma to Montgomery NHT are extending their reach by using mobile tagging with interactive quick response (QR) codes. Park websites can now be accessed anywhere via mobile devices with a simple scan."

While QR codes provide a quick, easy way to link your smartphone to a specific website, the websites need to be prepared for that traffic. In general, the three sites mentioned above cover the bases in terms of providing visitor information, but there are gaps, and some shortfalls. One disappointing aspect common to not just these three sites but to all NPS sites is the "Schedule of Events" search feature. If a park doesn't populate its calendar, no results are returned. So if you search for events at Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail between January 5 and the end of March, you'll find there are absolutely no events. Is that truly the case, or hasn't the park staff gotten around to loading that information?

Gettysburg National Military Park's web gurus seem to have realized the frustrating aspect of the event scheduler, and below it places links to upcoming events.

Constant monitoring also is needed to see that a park's "News" section is updated with the most recent release. Visit Selma to Montgomery's website and you'll find that no news releases have been posted since last March 27. Has no other newsworthy item surfaced since then?

Now, there are some very good websites in the National Park System universe. Yellowstone National Park's website overflows with information, so much so that it takes quite a while to digest, and problems arise because it can seem like you're traveling through a maze. If you don't have a well-designed site and an up-to-date Site Map, discovering just what is available for you can be a hit-and-miss proposition.

And sometimes even with a Site Map, 503 errors -- "We're sorry but the page you requested can't be served at this time." -- crop up. Another curiosity about Yellowstone's website (and maybe other nps.gov sites, too) is what happens when you click on the "Website Policies" link. You get a blank page. 

But the Yellowstone webmeisters overall do a pretty great job with their pages. Click on the "Plan Your Visit" link on the home page and after a quick, descriptive paragraph of what awaits you in the park they offer a paragraph riddled with hot links to topics such as "things to do," "places to eat," "fees, reservations and permits," "accessibility" and, being seasonally correct, "Visiting in Winter."

Sadly, though, the link to "brochures" was out of operation when I checked Friday. It was back in service Saturday, and the list of available publications was robust, from fire science, bison ecology, and birding reports as well as backcountry planners and historical information. Isle Royale National Park's link to brochures is not as flashy in layout, but still offers a relatively rich selection of topics, from camping and boating to invasive species, fishing regs and the park newspaper.

Most of the big parks -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain -- have content-rich sites that, in general, are easy to explore. Maintenance will take some pages down occasionally -- no doubt the situation with Yellowstone's brochures page -- and that should be expected with the amount of traffic these sites bear.

Still, a general criticism of park websites is they're inconsistent. While some park sites list a page "For Kids" that provides information on Junior Ranger programs, other park sites don't. Some parks view their site's home page as a tourism billboard, and rightly so. Go to Cape Hatteras National Seashore's home page and you'll see links to Directions, Operating Hours & Seasons, Fees and Reservations, Program Schedule, Park Newspaper, and Events, Ocean Swimming Safety, Off-Road Vehicle Use, Climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Bodie Island Lighthouse Tours. But there's nothing on camping, a topic that is deeper inside the site, taking three clicks to reach.

Smaller (in size) park units, and large (in size) units that experience relatively little visitation both suffer from a lack of web maintenance, something that could be tied directly to a lack of staff and funding. For instance, if you wanted this past weekend to tour Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve's photo gallery to go "on a virtual expedition through the vast, expansive, natural beauty of the Brooks Range," you were rewarded with, "Unable to connect to the CommonSpot SITES data source 'commonspot-sites'. Please verify that this is a valid ColdFusion data source."

Curious about the best birding to be found at Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts? A bad link takes you to Page not found.

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Whoops!

Interested in camping somewhere in the Delaware and Leigh National Heritage Corridor in Pennsylvania? Click on the "Outdoor Activites" link and you're sent to a page that says, "A wide range of lodging and camping opportunities are available within the Corridor, from a gilded age bed and breakfast to primitive camping opportunities." Period. Where you might find those facilities is a mystery.

Some websites can seem a bit mysterious when you reach their homepage. Delaware and Leigh National Heritage Corridor's, for instance, greets you with two links in the left-hand column: Park Home and Plan Your Visit. Click on Park Home and you're taken...to the page you're on. Click on Plan Your Visit and the possibilities open up a bit, with links for directions to the park, operating hours, fees, accessbility, things to do, and things to know before you come...a link that leads to bare bones pages, one on weather that states: We have four seasons and the temperature varies 10 degrees from one end of the Corridor to the other on any given day. The winters are harsher in the two mountainous northern counties (Luzerne and Carbon) than in the southern-most county (Bucks).

No doubt, staffing and funding constraints surely are behind the inconsistencies and shortfalls of nps.gov websites. But here in the 21st century, where information can/should be a click or two away on the Internet, the Park Service needs to not just strive for consistency and delivery, but ensure it.

For starters, it should require that every park's homepage contain links for the basics: Plan Your Visit, Photos & Multimedia, History & Culture, Nature & Science, For Teachers, For Kids, News, and Management. And those pages should have information on them and content that is updated regularly.

If need be, park managers, give your social media staffers a break from Twitter and Instagram and have them spend some time on website content. The rest of us will appreciate it so much more.

Comments

js53, very informative post. I believe your observation about the emphasis on more retail oriented cooperating associations is right on. Will be interested in your book.


Kurt's examples are not atypical, although, to its credit, the NPS is using a template now for its park unit websites that is superior to the individualized ones used previously. The problem is that some parks are doing a better job than others at interpreting what one of the elements of the tmplate might mean, or keeping their site current with the latest information. Even more troubling is the NPS main website, where data is often more than five years out of date, or "Under Construction" or simply missing. Take a look at the NPS Partnership website, for instance, and you will notice that the annual reports for cooperating associations are listed only to 2007, and the list of friends groups is so outdated that it is almost worthless if you are trying to contact someone. See why these issues are important for transparency and accountability in our new book, Philanthropy and the National Park Service (available on Amazon). We also analyze why the cooperating associations (aka bookstores) have become less educational in focus and more retail-oriented, and why you can now purchase items such as Democrap and Republipoop (I am not making this up!), and now there is a Statue of Liberty Barbie.


Yes! Please list each park and monument offering the Artist in Residence Program along with contact info, details, accommodations, length of stay, requirements and other important info. There is NO master list for the AIR program!!!


Dahkota, all very good points. I've noticed similar discrepancies in several parks. I've actually tried to tell people at recreation.gov, but the only ones we ordinary folks seem to have access to are some very nice call takers who don't seem to be able to do much.

But I'm going to try hard to follow up by emailing the individual parks with my appeal and see if maybe that might do something.

It's probably not all that important in the Great Scheme of Things, but hey, I'm an American Taxpayer and so I'm entitled to all the services, convenience and comfort I may decide to demand. So there!

And then they actually have the nerve to think I should be willing to pay extra . . . . .

Bah HUMBUG!


A good question, but probably not in the purview of this website. I certainly am no expert on the raging debate over economic policy, but two books that discuss these issues from a "progressive" point of view are Naomi Kline, "The Shock Doctrine" and Thom Hartman, "Unequal Justice". EC, these books present the arguments, well documented and quite readable, on the issues surrounding the "free market" policies of Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, others, including the University of Chicago School of Economics, that present interesting opposing viewpoints. Please excuse this response, but EC was interested in this issue and I found these books quite informative.


Ah. Recreation.gov is not a good reference for campgrounds. They typically only list those that are reservable. For example, they only list the three reservable campgrounds in Shenandoah (there are four). Also, many of the sites in the reservable campgrounds are non-reservable, which recreation.gov doesn't show. The campground maps show these sites but it's not easy to download onto a phone when you are in the middle of nowhere.

I have found that the best park maintained webpage for campgrounds is Glacier's. There is an interactive map that shows all the campgrounds and allows one to click through for campground details. It also provides a calendar that shows when the campground fills each day, allowing one to plan visits to non-reservable campgrounds. It would be great if all the national parks used something similar.

It would be better/easier if recreation.gov included all campgrounds and all campsites, at least just for reference - many people wouldn't even know that Glacier has 13 campgrounds rather than the three listed (and one only lists group sites). The website states: "Recreation.gov is your one-stop shop for trip planning, information sharing and reservations brought to you by 12 federal Participating Partners." But, as you pointed out, that is not true at all.


No, dahkota, it's not hard to find out if a park has campgrounds. But it is often difficult to learn if reservations are available or not. In parks with multiple campgrounds, some post that information and some don't. If you try to use recreation.gov to reserve a site all you'll get is a rather cryptic message that says no sites are available to reserve. But it doesn't tell you if that's because all are reserved already or if they're open to the first one who gets there. Knowing that changes my plan of attack.

I've learned that it's a nice security blanket to know I'll have a place to lay my weary old head after a day's travel. So it would be awfully handy to know if I may have to scramble to find a place or if I can take my time and enjoy the trip.

But then, I'm just getting old.


Lee, maybe I visit different National Parks. I find the camping information pretty easy to obtain. And on many sites, the park will offer alternatives when they do not have camping within the park.

The Forest Service and the BLM are a different story. At some sites, I think they are actively trying to discourage camping; they make it incredibly difficult to even find campgrounds, let alone figure out who or what they might accommodate when. I have found two websites infinitely useful in tracking these down: forestcamping, and uscampgrounds. Both sites are operated by people who love to camp.


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