Recent political skirmishes involving the National Park Service, from calls for some parks to be returned to the states to the U.S. House vote to gut the Antiquities Act, are signs that the national parks are losing relevancy with Americans, believes Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
The vote by the House on Wednesday, directed not specifically at the Park Service but at the president's ability to add national monuments to the park system, was just the most recent slight to the country's network of protected landscapes, cultural sites, and places of historic significance assembled as the National Park System.
The shutdown of the system last October due to the budget impasse in Congress raised animosity in some quarters against the Park Service. There also have been calls for Shenandoah National Park to be returned to Virginia and Ozark National Scenic Riverways to be given to Missouri to manage.
During a conversation Thursday in Salt Lake City, where Director Jarvis was attending a conference on parks, he raised the issue of national park relevancy, and how the upcoming centennial of the Park Service can improve the parks' connection with Americans.
“Here’s what I think about all this congressional and other action: I think it’s a symptom of a waning relevancy of the national parks to the American people," he said. "Which is why I go back to the centennial and our opportunity to rebuild that relationship.
"... What I sense, in terms of the flattening of (annual park) visitation, the flattening of the budget, these sort of legislative attacks on the underpinning of the Service, the challenges that we’re facing on a variety of fronts, are symptoms, to me, of a waning relevancy to the American people. And a lack of understanding of really what the Park Service provides to society," he said.
While the most visible aspect of the parks are grandiose, panoramic landscapes, the park system also plays a key role in providing clean air and clean water, serving as scientific laboratories, aiding individual health, providing economic returns, and serving as classrooms. But the Park Service hasn't always pitched those aspects as well as it has beautiful and majestic settings, said Director Jarvis.
"This concept that we’ve lived on to a certain degree -- 'build it and they will come' -- I think is not working as effectively as it has in the past," he allowed.
In discussing how the centennial campaign can be used to combat that flagging relevancy, Director Jarvis noted how the Park Service's first director, Stephen Mather, convinced the railroads to build the grand lodges to lure Americans to the parks and how he worked with the National Geographic Society to compile a portfolio showcasing the then-fledgling National Park System and place copies on the desks of every member of Congress.
Four decades later, then-Park Service Director Conrad Wirth ushered in the Mission 66 campaign to rebuild the infrastructure of the park system to welcome members of the "Greatest Generation" who were discovering vacations on the road.
Now, in the age of Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and other social media outlets, along with smartphones and tablets, the Park Service needs to connect with the so-called Millennials, as well as reconnect with other American generations that have lost touch with the National Park System, said Director Jarvis. That is the goal of the "Find Your Park" campaign that will be launched early next year to build excitement in advance of the Park Service's centennial in 2016.
"What we’ve got in the Park Service is kind of a secret. We’ve got these incredible places that can be life-changing. And yet there’s a cohort of Americna people who don’t know that, haven’t experienced it, don’t even know it’s available to them," he said. "So I think we have to sort of bring the parks to the people, and let them know that this belongs to them and they can go and experience it, and they can even experience some of it right within their own communities.
"And by doing that, and if we are successful at that, if we do it very well, and we deepen this connection, a lot of these other symptoms will go away," said the director.