Park Service works to make parks relevant to more people
Tuesday, March 14, 2006 YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) — On their annual field trip here, students at Benefield Elementary School get to see a grizzly bear and a bison, with a snow-crusted face. They also get enviable seats to glimpse a goopy mud pot and the whoosh of a geyser.
The seats, in fact, are in their suburban Atlanta school, where their online tour of the park and its wonders is an eagerly anticipated event. They make presentations about what they learn, which stretches into science, math and other disciplines.
“The kids are about beside themselves right now, they’re so excited about it,” said Karen Hartung, technology coordinator for the Lawrenceville, Ga., school.
E-trips, which mix animation and video, story lines and scientific facts, are among many new ways in which national parks and historic sites are seeking to capture the attention of a new generation of stewards — and prove themselves relevant in the fast-paced 21st century.
Some of those methods, like ranger talks for your iPod, take advantage of new technology. Other additions, such as Spanish-language video interpretations and snowshoe tours conducted in Spanish, show that the Park Service is trying to reach a more diverse audience.
For parks to endure for generations, officials say, people must know and love them and feel an emotional tie — even if the closest they ever get to them is a webcam image on their computer.
“We cannot assume parks will always be what people want to preserve and protect and enjoy,” National Park Service Director Fran Mainella said.
Although park visitation and volunteerism remain strong, Mainella said, research suggests some looming trouble spots. Surveys indicate that people in their mid-teens to mid-20s are going to parks less. Visitation by minorities, including Hispanics and blacks, is lower than it is for whites — in some cases substantially lower, said Jim Gramann, the agency’s visiting chief social scientist.
One reason some young people may be lukewarm to national parks is the perception that they are places “where you see, rather than do,” a potential turnoff for the skateboarding, rock-wall-climbing set, Gramann said.
Some parks, like Montana’s Glacier National Park, are experimenting with Podcasts that offer audio and video about grizzly bears and mountain vistas — for use in the park as an interpretive guide or on the New York subway to kill time.
The park also has an e-Hike feature — telling would-be visitors what they need to comfortably trek to Avalanche Lake and providing computer users a sights-and-sounds tour. And Glacier continues to operate its popular webcams, showing views of such places as Lake McDonald and Many Glacier.
Although there has been some criticism that people need to experience Glacier’s sights and sounds in person, Bill Hayden, the park’s interpretive specialist, said it would be shortsighted for parks to ignore new technologies as a way to show more people what they have to offer.
“Whether you visit the park or not, you own the park,” he said.
The Park Service’s Internet offerings are a big help to Jim Marks, who is blind. Marks, from Missoula, Mont., has special software that can read Web text — and he appreciates captions that explain the pictures.
“For me 10 years ago, I would get a paper brochure and I’d be entirely isolated from that,” he said. Now, working from the Web, he can play a bigger role in trip planning.
To draw more minorities to its sites, the Park Service is trying to present the history many of those sites contain in a more complete and meaningful way.
For example, Gramann said, the interpretation at places such as Civil War battlefields don’t deal just with the strategy of war but also the reasons behind the war and push to abolish slavery.
Alan Spears, associate director for diversity at the National Parks Conservation Association, said many people don’t know that the Park Service is one of the country’s largest custodians of black history and culture.
“We sort of discovered the National Park Service has an image problem,” he said.
While that still persists, he said, the agency has gotten better at communicating diversity and putting “bullets and bayonets” into a broader cultural context.
Mainella, the Park Service director, said a new survey of people’s attitudes toward the parks, expected in the next year or so, will help officials see if they’re on the right track.
The efforts are working for Benefield Elementary, Hartung said. Its students have a better understanding of Yellowstone, how it was made and what kind of animals live there, Hartung said.
The park’s bubbling water also has caused a stir among students.
“I guess it’s like kids in Wyoming not ever seeing the ocean,” she said.
On the Net:
Glacier National Park: http://www.nps.gov/glac/whatsnew.htm
Yellowstone National Park: http://www.windowsintowonderland.org
National Parks Conservation Association: http://www.npca.org
Part of me says that if it encourages them to support the parks and actually plant the seeds of visiting one day, it's a good idea.
The other part of me says that it's just another way of making more detached couch potatoes that will never see The Real World as more than some Hollyweird film, just photons on a screen somewhere.
Actually SEEING the world with your own eyes is an experience that changes you in many ways. Watching it on a screen isn't the same and never will be.
I agree. The first thing I thought of was the scene in Soylent Green where the old guy is dying while watching the film of how the planet used to be.
As someone who works for the Interior Department, I am saddened everyday by the fact that not too many people appreciate nature and what the park system offers. I take advantage of it all whenever possible.
Seeing it on a screen is great if that's the only way you can see it, but it's no where near the real thing.
We're not really teaching kids to be custodians of the Earth.
This is like wow
But some poor kid in, say, Philadelphia who's never been exposed may never have the desire to go. Stuff like this can be an introduction that plants the seed that makes them want to go and see it.