Transitions can be tricky, and for Clark Bunting, his arrival as president and chief executive officer of the National Parks Conservation Association coincided with two pivotal events for the National Park Service: the shuttering of the National Park System last fall, and the challenge of attracting younger, more diverse generations into the parks.
Technically, Mr. Bunting arrived at the park advocacy group a few weeks after the park system reopened in the wake of federal fiscal fisticuffs in Congress. And the issue of luring more Americans into the park system has been of concern for a number of years. Yet both issues -- funding the parks and attracting more visitors -- are ongoing and not likely to go away any time soon. They are issues that NPCA works to tackle on practically a daily basis, with their Capitol Hill staff working to convince the senators and representatives that the Park Service needs more money, and their field staff working on projects both to ensure the health of the parks and interest new visitors in them.
With the National Park Service's centennial drawing near in 2016, Mr. Bunting believes that occasion represents an opportunity to make inroads on both park funding and visitation.
"Whatever your political persuasion, wherever you fall on that continuum, parks are one of those unifying topics. I think it unifies us politically, I think culturally, I think socially," Mr. Bunting said during a recent phone interview. "So the parks are one of those very few things that folks can actually agree on."
Coming to NPCA from the Discovery Channel, where he was president and general manager, Mr. Bunting arrived with few immediate changes he wanted his new staff to focus on. But there was one.
"One of the things I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to contribute here is to emphasize story telling. I think we love to be told stories. As human beings we’re hard-wired for stories," he said. "I think the parks story is a particularly illustrative one for many reasons."
It's about America, the country's history, its melting pot population, he explained. Stories associated with those aspects of American life and landscapes can resonate with both decision-makers and generations of Americans no matter their age.
"I think we have an opportunity," Mr. Bunting replied when asked whether Congress can be convinced of the Park Service's needs. "I don’t for a moment deny it’s going to be tough up on the Hill. But I do think with the centennial you get that opportunity to remind people why the parks matter in this country. And I think parks do matter for many, many reasons. And for me, my background, coming from a story-telling background, that’s really where I think I can contribute and I hope make that centennial story resonate a little bit more.”
While National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis earlier this year voiced his opinion that the funding woes were in part tied to a flagging relevancy of the national parks, Mr. Bunting wasn't as direct when asked if he agreed with the director.
“Demographically, we cut that pie every day as many ways as we could to try to figure that out," he said, using his time at the Discovery Channel and the daily bid to keep Animal Planet and similar shows enticing to ever-changing audiences as an analogy to the dilemma of bringing newcomers to the national parks. "And there are demographic challenges. To that extent, I don’t disagree (with Director Jarvis). We’ve got to bring in new people. The demography in this country is changing, we’ve got to figure out how to get younger. We have to figure out how to make the parks more welcoming to more diverse populations. Have to figure out how to better embrace technology.
“So, for most points of view, there are challenges," acknowledged Mr. Bunting. "The other element of it is, and I don’t care what your age or your ethnicity, there’s something that is remarkably restorative about the parks, and I think that’s always going to be relevant. I think that element of the parks that speaks to our history, that speaks to our culture, that speaks to what it is to be human, that isn't going to go away. I think that’s always going to be relevant, that’s always going to be part of both the parks’ legacy and the possibility. If we do a better job of telling the stories, I think we can (attract new visitors)."
And yet, the NPCA leader said overcoming the technological divide that has sprung up with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, texting, Instagram, and other means of 21st century communication popular with Millennials, Gen Xers, and other generations younger than Baby Boomers, won't happen overnight. But NPCA is working on developing strategies that might succeed and connect more Americans with the national parks.
"That technology, particulary with younger folks, toothpaste will not go back in the tube," he said with a laugh. "I have a 26-year-old and a 22-year-old. I see the importance of that digital technology every day. But the other element is is that technology is also an opportunity. We get to meet people where they are. We get to use technology to its best advantage, we get to use technology to engage people in a way we haven't."
NPCA was able to do that earlier this year with its See America endeavor, through which a crowdsourced art campaign generated more than 500 entries for park posters reminescent of those created during the New Deal some 75 years ago to showcase the country's most picturesque landscapes.
"It was a younger group of people who were designing those posters. They came from all 50 states," said Mr. Bunting of the response to See America. "The amount of Twitter action on that was second I think only to when we had the (parks) shutdown."
To build on that effort, NPCA is assembling a "leadership council" of young adults age 18-34 to "look over the horizon and figure out exactly some of the topics you’re talking about. How to make the parks relevant, how do we make sure we use technology, how do we invite diverse audiences," he said. "We’re taking very much of a forward lean into that, realizing that to ignore that you do it at your own peril, and if you don’t do it there are some pretty bad outcomes that can follow.
“But we’re optimistic. We think we can use that opportunity as a way to reengage and to engage new audiences. Look, when I came up I had Boy Scouts, I had Cub Scouts, Sea Scouts, Girl Scouts, there was 4-H, there were all these opportunities that were hands-on opportunities in the outdoors. A lot of young folks don’t have that opportunity today. We are an increasingly urban culture."