'Pay to Play' Interpretation is a Bad Idea

Audio Wand like used in Mt Rushmore N.M.Here is a piece of information that I doubt is known beyond those that work within the National Park Service. At first this information may seem trivial at best, but I would argue that it reveals something important about the way the parks are managed. Here's the info I'm referring to: The technical job classification for Park Rangers in interpretation and in law enforcement are the same, GS-0025. What does that mean? As I read it, and as it was told to me originally, it means that both jobs serve the same purpose within the agency. Specifically, that job is resource protection. As defined by the Gov., the duties within the GS-0025 series [pdf] are to "supervise, manage, and/or perform work in the conservation and use of Federal park resources."

Interpretation exists first for the benefit of the park, not the people. Just as commissioned rangers protect the resource with side-arms and citations, interpreters approach park protection with their words. I think this is an important distinction. This means, that while an interpreter's program may be entertaining, they are not there to entertain you. Their role is to protect.

I am increasingly concerned that this distinction is getting lost, and that the role of interpretation is seen as providing entertainment to the park traveler. As a tool for entertainment, visitors are being asked with increasing frequency to pay for interpretation! Mount Rushmore recently launched a program where for $5 you can rent an audio wand to listen to a program about the presidents in the mountain. More and more, concessionaires around the country are offering interpretive programs in which the visitor must "pay to play". All this happening at the same time NPS interpretation positions around the system have been scaled back. It is a troubling trend that if allowed to continue would only hurt the parks in the long run.

Can you imagine having to pay a little extra to have a law enforcement ranger ensure your safety while you travel within a park, or to give him incentive to catch a bear poacher, or to have him bust the pot-growing operation in the backcountry? Probably not. So why do we accept that interpretation should be a service provided for an extra fee? The "benefit and enjoyment of the people" is rooted to the conservation of the park resources. Interpreters conserve the resource with their message when they can reach the most people. By asking park visitors to pay extra for this (beyond the cost of park entrance fees) is wrong. If the trend continues, it will be the park and its resources that pay the ultimate price.


Pay to play is likely here to stay. Unfortunately. I don't like it either. There are plenty of ways to get messages to people without charging them for it.

Likewise, the human touch is essential. The personal presence of an interpreter is a priceless commodity and should not be "up for sale" where only those with the cash can receive the benefit.

What we need is more interpreters and more ways to get the park message to people, not more ways just to cash in.