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Summit On The Parks: Where To Now?



It's been a week since the conclusion of America's Summit on National Parks, but in truth the work is just beginning.

Though just two days long, the Summit brought together groups as diverse as the American Latino Heritage Fund, the Greening Youth Foundation, the American Horse Council, and the American Hiking Society to discuss how best to bring more Americans into the national parks, how to expand the National Park System, and how to use the parks to develop healthy lifestyles.

The agenda, which lured nearly 400 participants to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., was built around the Call to Action that National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis released late last summer for use as a guide in leading the agency up to its centennial in 2016. That document was built around four themes: Connecting People to Parks, Advancing the NPS Education Mission, Preserving America's Special Places, and Enhancing Professional and Organizational Excellence.

In preparation for the conference, the three sponsoring organizations -- the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Hospitality Association -- drafted a Statement of Joint Principles for use in "creating a Centennial Agenda to guide action by our political leaders, philanthropists, and park supporters, as we approach the National Park Service's second century."

Those principles:

* Keep America's Promise to our Children: We borrow national parks from our children. As we enjoy today's opportunities to experience our national parks, we must also restore, preserve, and protect the parks' air, water, animal and plant life, as well as cultural and historic landscapes, so future generations can experience them as we do.

* Protect and Cherish our Heritage: National parks should have the resources to serve their owners, the American people, through basic federal funding, philanthropic support, and innovative partnerships. As investments in our future, heritage, economy and our national story, they should be honored, cherished and cared for, so they may exist for future generations to enjoy.

* Promote Powerful Partnerships: Well-managed national parks are enriching investments in American families, communities, and values. Our national parks are founded on powerful partnerships that embrace local communities, states, non-profits and private partners to propel visitation, youth engagement, recreation, service, healthy lifestyles and more. All parks can attract increased support through partnership, philanthropy and volunteerism as long as our national leaders meet their fundamental responsibilities to fund and protect the parks for the enjoyment of future generations.

* Connect with a Changing America: National parks must be accessible to those who live nearby and far away, through traditional and modern means, in ways that keep them protected and connect people to them. As the history of our great nation continues to be written, the National Park Service and its partners must evolve and should reflect the diversity of our nation and its unfolding story in the faces they project, the places they protect, and the creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship through which they're managed.

* Build a Vibrant National Community: National parks and their programs help produce healthy minds and bodies. They should be connected to communities through trails, waterways, and other means. They should be used to teach us, through our visits and in America's classrooms, about our natural and cultural heritage, and be available for present and future generations to tap as a reservoir to enhance our enjoyment and quality of life.

That's how the draft going into the conference read. Before it's finalized, however, it's likely to change to reflect some of the viewpoints and concerns voiced during the conference. How smoothly those changes are blended in remains to be seen, as the parks often are at the center of a tug-of-war between purists who want to see them preserved foremost for the natural resources they contain; the business interests, who are interested in leveraging an ongoing healthy return on their investments, and; the diverse recreational interests who don't want to see their form of recreation denied.

Beyond those three areas, there's also concern over how the parks should evolve in the face of growing technology in the form of smartphones, and how they can be marketed to attract today's younger generations who will be counted on to be tomorrow's park advocates and stewards.

Some concern was noticed during the conference around the concept of "innovative partnerships," an idea that likely was behind the invitation to a senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association to explain how videogames could be used to attract youth to national parks, a suggestion that was not warmly welcomed by all.

"(REI President and CEO) Sally Jewell ... pushed back a bit on that," Tom Kiernan, NPCA president said.

Still, the NPCA leader thought "the summit was a tremendous success. I think the engagement of the attendees with the panelists was genuine and rich, and you couldn’t have asked for more intense and thoughtful discussion and dialogue. I think people came out of there with a strong commitment for follow-through.

“We are beginning the process of that follow-up," he went on. "Obviously the Statement of Principles is the immediate next step. We’re taking the input from a number of the attendees to improve and enhance the statement and anticipate getting that out, a revised and improved Statement of Principles, out to the attendees later this week to begin the process for their support and endorsement."

Beyond revising and improving that statement, the organizers are sifting through all the notes, comments, and recommendations made by panelists and participants during the various breakout sessions. Once that's done, a summary will be released for further review.

"We know some of the sessions, we wanted to have more time than we were able to have for input from attendees, so we’ll be getting some more ideas" to build upon Mr. Jarvis's original Call to Action, said Mr. Kiernan.

Key, of course, is to continue the engagement and dialogue that flowed back and forth during the conference. Only four years remain until the Park Service marks its centennial in August 2016. That's a long period of time to hold alive the passion that evolved through the conference. It's also a relatively short time to come up with a final statement that achieves the requisite buy-in from the conference participants, the National Park Service, and Congress.

Mr. Kiernan, however, is bullish.

“I think there will be tremendous followup. The energy was there, the commitment was there, and we’re moving forward to make it happen," he said.

Watch the Traveler for continuing coverage of issues raised at the summit.

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