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NPS Director Jarvis: National Parks Are Losing Relevancy With Americans


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.


I forgot to mention in previous post. Many years ago, my brother and his wife took me on a wonderful trip, from Virginia through about 7 states, we saw the Grand Canyon and two other parks, at the Grand Canyon, I walked up, looked down in that beautiful place and I cried, it moved me that much. Our parks must be saved.....

I agree with you totally. My husband and I have been to the George Washington National Park and The Jefferson National Park, both very beautiful. My husband has been to many more, before we were married, he use to be an avid camper and hiker. We have also been to many state parks in N. C. and Va. I just can't imagine closing any of them. What we need to do is get new people in government offices, from the bottom up, replaced with people that LOVE this country and its people. Only then will things get better. As for now, I just hope that people will take their families and visit as many parks as they can, while they can. We never know what the present government will take away from us next.

Absolutely excellent, Roger.

Some comments in reference to the NPS Directors Salt Lake City talk.
Who and how many are disconnected from the national parks? Is it those who prefer to play games on computers? Is it the thrill seekers who love downhill mountain biking? Is it the ATV and snowmobilers who seek the most challenging cross-country routes? How many new users does the NPS need to attract? I keep reading articles about crowding in Arches NP where people are parking their cars on the side of the road and making use trails to reach the main route to Delicate Arch. Yosemite had to reduce the number of daily climbers of Half Dome for safety reasons. There is no place to park in Yosemite Valley on most days. There are too many people parking on the side of the road in Tuolumne Meadows and forming new trails across the meadows. The list of over crowded places in parks nationwide goes on and on. Conflicts between user groups are also increasing, particularly between mountain bikers, equestrians, and hikers. Soon we will have more wi-fi hotspots where visitors can congregate to experience reality tours and incidentally fill parking lots while surfing the net, and playing computer games. Is the only answer to build more campgrounds and lodging inside the parks? The Yosemite NP website has this to say about camping. "Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time. Be aware that nearly all reservations for the months of May through September and for some other weekends are filled the first day they become available, usually within seconds or minutes after 7 am!"

Where is the disconnect of the public from their National Parks? That is certainly true from the viewpoint of some groups in society. But is it the purpose of national park managers to accommodate every potential user group? How about opening up all single track trails in wilderness and potential wilderness to mountain bikers? Perhaps zip lines would attract more young people. Open up all of the waterways in Yellowstone and Grand Teton regardless of impacts on wildlife. Trams to such places as Glacier Point would attract more people. Of course more parking lots would be required to accommodate the increased uses. No one dares talk about loving our parks to death as conservation groups used to do. Even NPCA and The Wilderness Society are embracing some of the new uses. Much of the uproar is coming from groups and politicians who hate the idea of protecting any lands or imposing any controls on private profits including those of the recreation industry. It is time for the NPS Director to say enough is enough and park management will not cooperate in destroying the values for which the National Parks were created.

As many people have said, radical change is necessary from the top down in NPS management, attitude, and support for keeping up with a society that changes faster than ever. Unfortunately, the good-old-boy network is alive and well; hiring is more about who you know than what you know, and waiting for younger staff to ascend the ranks is probably going to take too long for the NPS to survive as a relevant institution.


The NPS is just starting to get over the attitude that Jarvis mentioned -- "if we build it, they will come." The NPS management has had an overwhelming cultural tradition focused on conservation, preservation, and keeping things unchanged (that's the mandate). Those are good ideals, but the present NPS management doesn't know how to explain them in a way that convinces others of their veracity. Even in today's world, these managers, and most superintendents, don't understand that the people (visitors and potential visitors) they are trying to attract are an ever-shrinking population in the U.S. They apparently still use a 25-year old visitor survey model that is fundamentally flawed in execution and analysis (, and they make little attempt to understand the cultural and social makeup of Latinos, African-Americans, American Indians, urban dwellers, the Millenials, etc. According to the survey assumptions, all "visitors" (from age 10 up) come from the same ethnic, social, and economic strata because the survey doesn't actually ask any questions about those things. People do not view leisure and travel the same way they did 25 or 50 years ago. Both attitudes and opportunities have changed. The NPS spends little time trying to learn why urban-dwelling Hispanics prefer large family picnics over camping in the wilderness, or continue to attach meaningless relevance to the vapid idea that African-Americans don't visit parks because they are afraid of being in parks. Or people lack transportation; which may work if you're referring to Yellowstone, but not if you're referencing the multitude of urban and metro-area units.

As many people have said, radical change is necessary from the top down in NPS management, attitude, and support for keeping up with a society that changes faster than ever. Unfortunately, the good-old-boy network is alive and well; hiring is more about who you know than what you know, and waiting for younger staff to ascend the ranks is probably going to take too long for the NPS to survive as a relevant institution.

Thank you, JLlewllyn and Owen for two refreshing bits of wisdom.

Here is a link to a news item in today's Salt Lake Tribune regarding this topic. Jarvis made his remarks while attending a conference here.

I totally agree with Barbara Moritsch, who in her book, "The Soul of Yosemite" urges that "park relevancy" should be replaced by the more appropriate term: "park reverency."

Unfortunately, playing wordspeak doesn't fix the issue. The People must think there is some 'value" in having the parks. And I am not talking necessarily economic value. As long as the service continues to acquire marginal units that dilute its mission and funds and pushes concepts largely rejected by the public, it will fail to make the necessary connection. Lacking that connection, the parks are going to continue to suffer from underfunding.

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