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America's Summit On National Parks Opens With Advice From Past Park Service Directors


America's Summit on National Parks opened with encouragement to continue to grow the National Park System, and to reach out to younger generations with technology, but not to the detriment of real communication with visitors.

During a reception Tuesday evening at an Alexandria, Virginia, waterfront restaurant that overlooked the gleaming skyline of Washington, D.C., an affair that highlighted the best of Virginia's foods and wines, former National Park Service Directors Fran Maniella and Robert Stanton stressed the need to reach younger generations.

While Mr. Stanton said emerging technologies can play a great role in that effort, he also stressed that the Park Service should not replace its interpretive rangers with technology.

Though technology should be maximized to showcase the value of the national parks, "dissemination of information may not be communication," he added.

"We should never diminish the importance of personal communication. Interpretation is not intended to do something for the listener, but to encourage the listener to do something for themselves," said Mr. Stanton, who served as director from August 1997 until January 2001.

The conference, which continues Wednesday and Thursday with day-long workshops delving into such topics as education, wellness, and landscape connectivity, is being sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Hospitality Association. Along with many individuals with connections to those groups, also in attendance Tuesday evening were representatives from national park friends groups from throughout the nation.

Joining Mr. Stanton and Ms. Mainella for a short panel discussion was Alan Latourelle, the chief executive officer of Parks Canada, which just last year marked its centennial. He told the audience that, in the face of diminishing visitation to Canada's parks, his agency approached the centennial with a goal to reach youth and new residents of the country unfamiliar with its parks' offerings.

"Leave your technology at home and come experience the parks" was one of the messages Parks Canada used to connect with youth, said Mr. Latourelle. The point was not to abandon that technology, he said, but to take a break from it to experience the natural wonders of the country.

While Ms. Mainella, NPS director from July 2001 until October 2006, agreed technology can play an important role in gaining new visitors to the parks, she didn't believe it was wise to "turn parks into virtual tours."

"Use the techology to entice the young people into our parks," said the former director. But "we do not want it to consume how we experience the parks."

Jackie Lowey, a former deputy director of the National Park Service who was moderating the panel discussion, said "we need to work to get every child into the parks. But we can't do it alone. If we're not ready to partner, we will not succeed."

Mr. Latourelle added onto that by saying partnerships need to be as multifaceted as possible to succeed, even to the extent of building synergies among various partners.

Ms. Mainella also told the audience that the park system needs to be allowed to continue to grow in size and diversity.

"You need to grow strategically, add critical pieces, like the African Burial Ground (National Monument)," she said. "We need to continue to add these critical resources, natural and cultural."

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There seems to be a constant emphasis on getting more children engaged inthe parks.
Well, children can't go to National Parks alone. They need adults. And children are very willing to get enthused if their parents, teachers and significant adults are enthused. Sp are parents eager to get out there, get  out of the car and get sweaty?
Danny Bernstein

This happens frequently I've seen where they put goals out like getting more children involved with Parks while other efforts are diminishing the very same opportunities.  
Case in point:  There are very few opportunities in the Parks that are more truly interactive and transformational than for a family to ride the Gerand Canyon Mules into the Inner Canyon for the overnight.  Absence of techy stuff, bonding with their mules and soaking up the Canyon effect is the adventure of a lifetime for most.  It remains amazing to me to see the good things that happen that make stronger, happier individuals.  This opportunity has been reduced by 75% by a tyranical (now retired) Superintendent.

I agree with Kids Stuff about the inconsistency of the goal and what happens on the ground.  At a NPS part unit just outside Wash DC, a ranger actually chastised a child for picking up Fall leaves from the ground for a school project, telling her that it was illegal to remove anything from a NPS unit.  This type of attitude is not going to be bringing kids to our parks. 

I had a similar moment with college students who wanted to collect some shed bison fur in Yellowstone. I enforced the rules and made it a teachable moment about the Lacey Act. But I did wonder whether the NPS could find some workable exceptions. Fall leaves?

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