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Padre Island Interpretive Program Simply Succeeds

Padre Island touch table; 'qnr' photo via Flickr

The touch-table at Padre Island National Seashore. Photo via Flickr

I believe the role of interpretation in park resource management is of utmost importance. When a skilled interpreter can reach an audience with his message, visitors can walk away from the park visit with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the resource the park service is trying to protect. This is why I worry about the trends I see in the parks which belittle the role of the professional interpreter.

It is not uncommon to read about electronic rangers arriving in the parks -- computer controlled handheld devices with GPS installed, available for rent. We are beginning to see pay-to-participate interpretive programs offered by the Park Service in some areas. And in other areas, professional interpreters are being replaced by concessionaire operated bus tours with pre-recorded programs played over the speaker system. I have great concern that the role of interpreter is coming to be understood as one of simply "tour guide", or worse, an entertainment act.

I am pleased to share with you an article which appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. The author of "a Ranger's lessons", discovers first hand how powerful an interpretive program can be when given by an experienced, knowledgeable park ranger to an intimate group of curious visitors.

Have you been on a program like this? The Padre Island National Seashore interpreter, William "Buzz" Botts, starts with the cool factor of the beach environment.

[He began his talk] at the "Beach in a Box," a "touch table" filled with sand and a collection of items gathered from the beach, each of them presenting a different story: a pelican skull, a dolphin spine and a green glass globe, which turned out to my surprise to be an antique fishing float, and a piece of fulgurite, which is a petrified chunk of sand melted by a lightning strike on the sand that cooled into a column of stone.

Once the unique nature of the Padre Island environment has been revealed, time to move into protection mode, reveal that this special place has some issues that have to be addressed.

"When they do necropsies of sea turtles — which is like an autopsy — a common feature is the plastic they find in their gut. Then there are the bite marks we find in these plastic bottles, which is evidence of feeding by sea turtles. They probably think it's a jellyfish."

Unfortunately for the professional interpreter, it is next to impossible to quantify the success of the program. How many people after having seen this program will retain the information and alter their behavior to better protect the park resource? Who can say? For this article though, the author leaves us a final thought which suggests the ranger's program changed her outlook of the beach.

Later, as I buy ice cream from the ice cream truck on the beach, the lady apologizes for the seaweed that Hurricane Dean had deposited. I told her the seaweed didn't bother me much; it's part of nature — but to see the plastic strewn around was the problem.

Pretty cool. Would this ranger's interpretive program been as successful if it had been delivered over an iPod? My sense is, no it wouldn't have been. There is just something special that occurs when people talk with people. It is hard to reproduce that level of communication electronically.


I'd like to see anyone replace this ranger or this kid's experience with an ipod...

Thanks very much for adding that video. It demonstrates exactly my thoughts regarding this article. For all the talk about "reaching out to the iPod generation", I think something very important is being missed. People want to talk with people, they want to connect with someone at the park, kids included. There are lessons to be learned in that short video.

The problem is that Interpretation is too top heavy with management and doesn't reward the truly good front line practitioners who have the most impact on the visiting public. The successful interpretive career path in the NPS usually means NOT doing interpretation, but instead getting involved in publications, supervision or training. People who are really effective interpreters are not encouraged to remain as such due to the lack of career advancement. In fact, I've met supervisors who deem going out and giving a program or working a shift at the information desk to be beneath the advanced stage that they have achieved in their GS pay level.

At one park, that I am intimately familiar with, they are always screaming poverty and cutting back on activities and programs but have two highly paid managers, a GS-14 and GS-13 (Chief and Asst. Chief of Interpretation), who do NO interpretation whatsoever, while the lion's share of the budget goes to pay their bloated salaries. They also have below them lead supervisory rangers who also do NO interpretation and are quite proud of the fact that they don't. In fact, one of these managers, was quoted as saying that they didn't want to supervise an employee who was still doing interpretation, because it was beneath their status as an upper manager. After all it just wouldn't look good on their SF-171.

Just like in the teaching profession, until front line interpreters are given the respect, pay and opportunity for advancement by being encouraged to do what they do best, park naturalists will continue to take the only safe career path of upward mobility which is away from what they love best. The parks definitely suffer as a consequence.

The NPS pays lip service to interpretive excellence but is not set up to actually make it a reality.

Yeah. What Beamis said.

And I don't see what is so extraordinary about the interaction bewteen the ranger and the little boy in the video. Other than that the visitor center was staffed enough that the ranger had enough free time to give this one boy. If the opportunity allows, park rangers are having exchanges like this one with park visitors everyday. And Gasp! some of those rangers are even gun toters!

On that note, comparing this videotaped interaction with internet based interpretation is like comparing a Granny Smith to a MacIntosh. Ya know, one's best raw the other makes excellent pies. That's why the stores sell both of them.

Haunter Hiker and Beamis - thanks very much for weighing in.

H.H. - I agree with you, there isn't anything extraordinary about that video, which I think is great! To me, it represents what "business as normal" ought to be in the National Park Service. The video is nothing more than an interpreter (I presume) doing her job. And, I agree, there are NPS Law Enforcement rangers which provide the same level of dedication and passion for the job and for the visitor.

And, I agree with you that there is nothing wrong with non-personal interpretation, like that found in visitor center exhibits, orientation movies, the web, and podcasts -- this is the stuff I'm payed to produce (my real job), so believe me, I really find nothing wrong with it. What bothers me, is when it is suggested that non-personal interpretation can be a substitute for intrapersonal interpretation (like suggesting the MacIntosh is just as tasty as the Granny Smith is raw). I've been sent in email about new devices described as "GPS Rangers". The title of the article is "Gadgetry to lure 'iPod' generation to California's Death Valley". Says the salesman of this device, "Look at Americans -- they don't read that many books. Why fight it? Join it!"

The point I'm hoping to make with this article, and the attached video in the comments section, is that the person to person interpretation can be much more powerful tool at resource protection than a gadget can. The pessimist (or is it realist) in me says the NPS may be turning to these electronic gadgets because they can produce a tangible return on investment (in rental dollars) where as people interpreters cost too much money to maintain (income, housing, etc) and produce a result which is hard to measure.

This ranger latched on to the fact that this kid had an interest in Peregrines and went with it. Bully for her, as TR would say. She could have easily recited the usual blah blah swearing in ceremony for the kid and then re-parked her butt back behind the desk and pasted on a smile waiting for the next "Where's the bathroom?" question to come along. My kids do Junior Ranger booklets everywhere we go and sometimes you can't even find a ranger around to talk to them, then you get the bookstore cashier reading some script or even worse, just handing the kid a plastic badge with maybe a "congratulations". I have my kids do these not only to learn about the park but to get that minute or two of interaction with the ranger, questioning what they found, sharing their experiences. There are not enough rangers nor do they usually have enough time to interact one-on-one with kids. The formal interp programs have been scaled back so much you can hardly find anything offered outside of summer these days. So, yeah, unfortunately this video shows the way it ought to be and increasingly the way it "used to be". To say she only did this because she had the time is pretty darn cynical. It's obvious to me she cared enough that the kid left with a memorable, positive experience in the hopes that someday he will do the same for others. Caring is contagious, and an electronic gizmo doesn't care a lick.

Usually formal interpretation programs get axed due to reduction in seasonal staff. Seasonal staff do the bulk of interpretation. I worked at the same park Beamis referenced above, and in this park and others, the seasonal interp jobs are the first cuts made.

How many seasonal interpreters (and therefore seasonal programs) could be funded with money slotted for a GS-14 and a GS-13? Assuming both are step 1--and not counting big benefits packages which seasonal employees don't get--that adds up to about 150k. If both are step 10, that'd add up to a whopping 190k. A GS-05 can expect to make about $13k in a six-month season. So, those two positions could fund between 11 and 15 seasonal interpreters.

Those upset about reduction in interpretive programs should demand that the NPS--instead of cutting seasonal interpretive positions--cut bloated management budgets and reallocate those funds to the interpretive base.

Until that happens, expect to see more iPod "rangers" and fewer real people speaking passionately and knowledgeably about the lands we cherish.

And I have to quote Beamis because it's worth repeating:

Just like in the teaching profession, until front line interpreters are given the respect, pay and opportunity for advancement by being encouraged to do what they do best, park naturalists will continue to take the only safe career path of upward mobility which is away from what they love best. The parks definitely suffer as a consequence.

Amen brother.

I support the administrative merging of co-located parks to reduce the upper management ranks.

What's funny is that the techno-approach being used to reach visitors could also easily be used for management and staff to regularly interact.

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