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Designations Just One Example of Disparities Within the National Park System. Web Sites Are Another


Content varies greatly across the web portals of the National Park System, as evidenced by a side-by-side comparison of the Gauley River National Recreation Area and Yellowstone National Park homepages.

The recent article about the roughly 30 designations that are in play across the 391 units of the National Park System highlights just one of the disparities that exist among units. Another example is the uneven quality of the 391 units' websites.

While it's oft said that regardless of the designation all units of the National Park System supposedly are treated equally by the National Park Service, nothing could be farther from the truth, at least not when it comes to web content. And that's unfortunate, as the Internet is about the only place the National Park Service conducts anything resembling a marketing campaign.

To prove that point, let's compare the websites of Yellowstone National Park and Gauley River National Recreation Area.

Yellowstone just might have the best webmeisters in the Park Service, and a deep support crew in terms of public affairs, interpretation, and science staffs.

Go to Yellowstone's website and right off the bat the lefthand column offers you choices to Plan Your Visit, Photos and Multimedia, History and Culture, Nature and Science, For Teachers, For Kids, News, Management, and Support Your Park. In the body of the homepage there are more hot links to take you to Directions, Operating Hours and Seasons, Fees and Reservations, Road Construction Delays and SEASONAL Closures, Centennial Initiative 2016, Publications, What's New, and Webcams.

Move beyond that homepage and you can spend hours sifting through old and new photographs of the park; videocasts of the park; many chapters of Yellowstone's management history, with a bent toward winter-use; learn all about backcountry camping and how to obtain permits; fishing rules; campgrounds; education programs such as the well-received Expedition Yellowstone; lists of approved outfitters, including those that focus on photography; management debates over the park's northern range, and much, much more.

The website for Gauley River, sadly, pales greatly in comparison. Its lefthand column is modest, even Spartan, offering just Plan Your Visit, History and Culture, Nature and Science, and Management options. The body of the page contains hot links for Directions, Operating Hours and Seasons, Fees and Reservations, and Riparian Assessment.

There is no specific section for Photos and Multimedia, or News, and nothing For Teachers or For Kids, and no way to Support Your Park. Now, if you root around the website you'll find some content, such as more details on whitewater adventures on the Gauley, a nice page that, when updated, lets you figure out both water levels on the Gauley and when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans releases from the Summersville Dam for the fall 2009 rafting season. And there's a link to American Whitewater's Gauley River page, which offers ample information on the Gauley.

Sadly, the History and Culture page offers only a time-line of human occupation in the area and the evolution of the rafting industry. And while some park websites go into rich detail with birding lists, flower lists, and faunal information, Gauley River's Nature and Science page on its face is highly generic, though you can download pdfs addressing the recreation area's riparian areas.

Now, this is not intended to serve as a critique of the Gauley River staff. Rather, it's to point to the inequities that exist across a system that is not supposed to have such inequities. Understandably, larger parks with more acreage, more infrastructure and more tourism traffic are going to require more money and staff. But if you accept that the National Park Service's web presence is the agency's, and the 391 units', main form of getting the word out of the wonders that exist within the National Park System, you'd hope there would be equity across the system.

They say President Obama is highly cognizant of the powers of the Internet, Let's hope he expects his agency heads to be just as cognizant and that they order some much-needed work on the Park Service sites.


This is a pretty weak argument, Kurt. I'd love for the smaller parks to have better websites, but there's no way that a smaller unknown unit like Gauley River would ever have a website like Yellowstone's. And, boy, I'd be pissed if they did because I bet the web traffic is probably 50-1 for Yellowstone and let's be honest, they don't have that much to post up there.

I too think this comparison is a bit silly. Yellowstone had 27 times as many visitors as Gauley River in 2007. Don't you think it might be appropriate to invest more time and money into its website? And not only actual visitors count: How many students in all grades and disciplines write papers on Yellowstone and how many on Gauley River? And here on the Traveler 169 articles are tagged Yellowstone National Park, two for Gauley River NRA (both today and including this one).

More data: The NPS has no public access statistics for their website, but Wikipedia does. In February 2009, the article on Yellowstone was accessed 35873 times, The one on Gauley River 298 times. Money is tight, there is high demand for experts time. How should the NPS spend their budget for web development and content creation? On Gauley River NRA?

Soooo, should the NPS rid itself of Gauley River NRA? If only 298 folks visited the site in February (and I'm not sure how Wikipedia counts those hits), is that indicative that the NRA doesn't belong in the National Park System?

Don't misunderstand. I'm certainly not suggesting that Gauley River's website be as rich as Yellowstone's. The content simply isn't there, no matter how strong the resources. And I clearly pointed out that larger, more prominent parks such as Yellowstone certainly have more needs to meet than smaller units such as Gauley River.

But how do you build interest in a unit of the National Park System? By ignoring it? If the 391 units of the National Park System are presented as the best of the best and viewed as treasures that should be preserved, don't they all deserve some even-handedness in how they are presented by the NPS? Shouldn't there be a basic amount of content across the board?

Gauley River is just one example of the inequities that exist when it comes to NPS web presence. And you don't have to drill down too far into the "designations" to find such inequities. Check out the websites of Badlands, Isle Royale (which on its face appears more Spartan than Gauley River), or Cape Lookout National Seashore.

As for the costs of updating these websites, there are plenty of web design schools across the country that surely could be involved with a little outreach.

P.S. -- MRC, if you use the Traveler's search function, you'll find a few more articles that reference Gauley River.

Here is an idea... Perhaps a suggestion system could draw attention to overlooked parks. Much like, iTunes music store, and Netflix gives users suggestions about what books, music, or movies they may like. It could be interesting to see something like that for public lands. You could go to NPS.GOV and answer a few quick questions (rate things like "I like to learn about History"). You could go even further and build in a rating system.

As for finding out what people are searching for, check out It is a google tool that allows one to look at search volumes and who is searching. The numbers are sometimes difficult comprehend but still interesting. Also, there are no raw numbers for searches but you can compare places and get relative/proportional data.

I believe that there needs to be a baseline, or minimal amount of support delegated for all entities within the NPS. In this case, web support. Once this is established, we (the tax payers) should expect to receive the best "bang for the buck" when it comes to allocation and spending. I also understand this is easier said than done. Bottom line here is, not all public lands were created equal. Some require (and deserve), more care and attention than others. Let's make sure that ALL lands are researchable with adequate information. It is not necessary to exploit every resource.
After all . . . Is it really such a bad thing to have a few lesser known gems to discover and explore?

Wait a second...because a park is small it should not bother with a large website? Now, that IS a weak argument. Especially when you consider how EASY it is for one person to make a huge difference with a website. Kurt is exactly right! We want to build interest in all the parks. Building a great website is the most cost-effective way possible to keep people informed and build interest. Look what Kurt has done with this website. It is so cheap to do. The National Park Service is supposed to manage ALL of the parks, not just the big ones!

It looks to me like the NPS created a CMS (content management system) at the national level with standard templates and let the parks fill in their own content at the local level. The NPS should have a team of people build content (books, articles, images, etc) into ALL of these different park websites...instead, they leave it up to the local level. If the local park has the resources to add there own content, fine. I have no doubts that one team of people could build up every park website (to the level of Yellowstone's) in a year or two. Then, the only issue is maintaining current information, such as current conditions, news, and so forth.

Believe me! I'v done it for our non-profit.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute

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