Reaching into his daypack, the ranger pulled out a banana slug. Not a real one, but a stuffed animal version, a perfect prop to explain just exactly what banana slugs were to the youngsters in his audience in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park.
Later he would turn to a salmon puppet, and then an elk, using them to provide insights to his audience about the wildlife here in the Hoh Rain Forest, to examine the biodiversity, and to explain the importance of the pristine environment for habitat. It was the kind of performance theater perfect for the moist, emerald setting, one that kept the youngsters enthralled and the adults appreciative as we wound our way down the Hall of Mosses Trail in the rain forest.
One of the best ways to experience a national park, whether it's in the middle of the Hoh Rain Forest or on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, along the shores of Cumberland Island National Seashore off the coast of Georgia or at Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in New York, is to tag along with a park ranger on an interpretive program. Through the rangers' knowledge, and the give-and-take such programs encourage, your visit is enriched, and often the kids entertained to the point that they're acquiring knowledge without realizing it. A perfect approach to teaching!
Unfortunately, the role of the interpreter, or naturalist, is seen as endangered by some. An article in the April issue of BioScience warns that colleges are not turning out as many true natural history graduates as they once did. And that, the authors state, is a loss for society.
"Despite the importance of detailed natural history information to many sectors of society, exposure and training in traditional forms of natural history have not kept pace with growth in the natural sciences over the past 50 years," reads one section of the article.
While that might be the case in general, a greater threat currently to interpretation in the national parks is budgetary, not a lack of talent.
"The park ranger interpretive ranks are shrinking due to budget cuts," says Julia Washburn, the National Park Service's associate director for interpretation, education, and volunteers. "We are in the process of writing a business plan which will document this quantitatively and provide us with better information about the situation."
At the same time, she added from her Washington, D.C., office, "it's not like there's any shortage of people who want those jobs. I talk to young people all the time who would like to be park interpreters. The reality is we don't have a lot of jobs due to the budget situation."
If anything, the Park Service could be seen as engendering the next generation of naturalists. The BioBlitzes held each year across the National Park System, along with other citizen science programs and the traditional ranger programs, introduce visitors young and old to earth sciences, biodiversity, fisheries, and more "ologies" that revolve around nature. Complementing these Park Service programs are those offerings from non-profit organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Nature Association that leads visitors into Rocky Mountain National Park.
"I find that folks are looking for more of an experiential class, where they can be involved in their learning by doing something, exploring in the field, etc., instead of being in a classroom for most of the course," says Rachel Balduzzi, the association's education director. "Our program has grown exponentially in the last few years, but I think that has to do with the programming we are offering, not necessarily tied to the (lack of) ranger-led offerings in the park."
Across the National Park System, groups are becoming more and more involved in interpretation in the parks. Look through the Rocky Mountain Nature Association's course catalog and you'll see programs for outdoor skills and hiking, cultural history (check out Campfire Ghost Stories: Living History Tales of the West set for July 10) and, of course, natural history (Climate Change in the Rockies is slated for August 30).
Through its institute, the Grand Canyon Association offers programs as diverse as a Havasu Canyon Natural & Cultural History Backpack to Raptors of the Grand Canyon. The North Cascade Institute offers a Citizen Science BioBlitz: Maple Pass Plant Inventory program, family programs that teach camping skills in the beauty of North Cascades National Park, and even a graduate program there that offers a Master of Education, Certificate in Leadership and Nonprofit Administration and Northwest Naturalist Certification.
J.T. Reynolds, who ended his long Park Service career in 2009 when he retired as superintendent of Death Valley National Park, today keeps his hand in park interpretation by working with the Rocky Mountain Sustainability and Science Network affiliated with Colorado State University to train naturalists. This program places an emphasis on developing "future leaders, and potential NPS employees, and future stewards of Mother Earth," Mr. Reynolds explains. He currently is in Grand Teton National Park with a class of students, and in June another program he's involved with is taking 15-18 middle school students to Grand Canyon National Park through Lifetime Adventures, a program that places its emphasis on science, hiking, backpacking, and camping.
While these programs can at least encourage natural history careers, the study published in BioScience said colleges and universities today don't make it easy for students to focus on that career.
"...trends suggest more general declines in exposure to natural history at the graduate and undergraduate levels," the study's authors found. "In the United States, the proportion of PhDs with degrees in natural history-related fields of biology has declined steadily over the past 50 years. Exposure to and emphasis on natural history have also declined in undergraduate education."
At the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, Ms. Balduzzi has witnessed that trend.
"I think the decline you see in the 'college-trained naturalists' has to do with the shift in degree focus initiated by the college, not students," she says. "For instance, when I received my degree, I was able to get a bachelor’s of science in environmental education, communications and interpretation -- all one degree. Now that degree no longer exists, but is three separate four-year degrees. A naturalist by trade knows a little (sometimes a lot) about a wide variety of topics, but due to specialization being the focus at most places of higher learning, I think the broad spectrum 'naturalist' is a dying breed as students are pigeonholed into more specific majors."
That trend, the BioScience article offers, is reducing society's connection with nature.
"Urbanization and a lack of exposure to nature, changes in affluence, and increased television and computer use have all been implicated in the reduced public awareness of nature," reads one section of the study. "Evaluating the causal pathways between these factors is beyond the reach of this article, but the declines in natural history literacy are clearly embedded in a larger social context with large implications for science and society."
National parks can counter that trend...if visitors travel to them and find interpreters ready to lead them.
"It makes sense in today's world where society is becoming increasingly disconnected to nature that we would see a decline in naturalists and specialists in natural history disciplines," the NPS's Ms. Washburn wrote in an email in a follow-up to our first conversation. "I believe it is likely that we are not seeing a decline in qualified applicants for NPS natural history-related jobs because of two potential factors: the NPS is still seen as a premier employer for natural history professionals, and there are fewer jobs available in the NPS due to budget cuts and erosion of budgets over time.
"I do think the NPS has the potential to offset the decline in interest in natural history and to increase people's connections with the natural world through our citizen science and interpretive programs in parks, schools, and communities. We are working hard to increase citizen science programs at parks, enhance our educational program offerings, get our content to teachers and in classrooms, and increase our community engagement programs. We are intent on the big goals of helping to increase science literacy and civic engagement through our programming," she said.
A random check of parks across the system found that the ranks of interpreters have rebounded from a decline seen in 2013 due to budget cuts.
"2013 was the anomaly for us with the loss of many seasonal interpreters due to the across-the-board budget cuts," says Susan Moynihan at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. "Most of those seasonal positions have been restored in 2014 and levels will be close to 2012, but I don't know the specific numbers until we complete our hiring. Our seasonal FTEs (full-time equivalent numbers for interpretation, just under six positions) have remained pretty consistent for the past 16 years that I have been at Cape Cod."
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the number of permanent interpreters on the park staff has been right around 15 in recent years, with another 7-8 seasonal interpreter positions.
If there is a trend in the park system when it comes to interpreter numbers, it's that parks, in coping with tight budgets, hire more seasonal interpreters than permanent interpreters. That makes sense, beyond the dollars and cents costs, in parks such as Yellowstone, where many more interpreters are needed during the summer season than in winter.
But if colleges don't offer the degrees, the Park Service eventually might find its pool of candidates shrinking. In their conclusion, the authors of the BioScience article stress that now is not the time to give up on natural history degree programs.
A renewed focus on the natural history of organisms is central to the growth of basic and use-inspired research and is also a critical step toward sustainable management and toward providing increased predictive capacities and improved outcomes across disciplines as diverse as health, agriculture, and conservation. However, natural history in the twenty-first century will look different from that of the nineteenth as this fundamental knowledge is applied to new frontiers and as new technologies are used in the practice of natural history. Despite these differences, however, the importance of natural history to science and society remains timeless.