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Gateway Communities: Not All Have Tight Connections With Their National Parks


Despite their close proximity to Moab, and the wonders that lie within their borders, most visitors to Arches and Canyonlands national parks are not locals. Kurt Repanshek photos.

Editor's note: A topic discussed in detail at America's Summit on the National Parks earlier this year was not just how to get youth into the parks, but how to attract a cross-section of youth that reflected America's diversity. In a series of stories, the Traveler is looking at the approaches different groups take to address that issue. In this, the third installment in the series, we'll look at efforts being made by Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks to get youth into those two parks.

There's no doubt that more than a few readers of the Traveler would love to call a national park gateway community their home. But sometimes, those who live in gateway towns are disconnected with that national park next door.

That's the case in Jackson, Wyoming, where Latino families and their children aren't often seen in Grand Teton National Park. But the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is working with park staff to bridge the divide through Pura Vida, a program that connects Latino students with the park.

A somewhat similar situation occurs in Moab, Utah, the gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. It's a gritty, blue-collar town that once thrived off the uranium mining industry, and which now mines tourism dollars in large part thanks to the two parks and their red-rock scenery, as well as the wide expanse of surrounding U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands that are perfect for off-roading, mountain biking, canyoneering, and hiking.

Surprisingly, perhaps, relatively few of the town's residents head to the two parks on a regular basis. Joette Langianese, executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, says out-of-town visitors to the parks easily outnumber locals. And just as some of the Latino residents of Jackson are put off by Park Service staffers in uniform, the same has been said of Navajo and Latino residents in Moab, she says.

But there are larger problems, too, that impede use of the parks by locals, according to the executive director. On one hand, there's the disconnect among the community and the parks; residents in general don't head to them to recreate. Too, efforts to connect school students with the parks and outdoors are wanting.

"We do have the Canyon Country outdoor program that’s been going on (in the schools) for a long time," said Ms. Langianese, "but it stops at sixth grade. So after sixth grade there’s no program."

In a bid to overcome these issues, the friends group works with other nonprofit organizations to take youth into the parks. All it takes, of course, is money. Or it could be something as simple as some vans to drive students into the parks several days a year.

"There’s a lot of opportunity with the resources that we already have here that do focus on multi-cultural and youth populations. So we just feel like we can expand and enhance those programs," the executive director said.

To make some of those programs blossom, the friends group offers a scholarship program to help non-profit groups afford them.

We would be reaching out to other nonprofits that have the means and already do similar programs, but they don’t have the resources to actually make it happen," said Ms. Langianese in explaining the scholarship program. "For example, Canyonlands Field Institute, they like to do night sky programs within the park, but gauge it towards the importance of keeping the night sky preserved around the parks so that we can enjoy dark skies.

“And they don't have the resources to send one of their staff, to pay a staffer, to go give that presentation. So they could come apply to us and we would give them the funding," she continued. "It’s not a lot. We have about $10,000 that we could give away (annually). The (Moab Valley) Multicultural Center for example, they wanted to take the kids to Needles (District), but they didn’t have the vehicles to do that. So we assisted them with finding the vehicles, paying for the gas.  

“So our organization is not providing the service, but we’re providing the resouces to other nonprofits to do that.” 

And yet another basic problem is the cost of heading into the parks, said Ms. Langianese.

"Moab’s a poor community. We do have retirees here, and second-home owners who aren’t here all the time. But people that live here, go to school here, unless they work for a government agency, there are very few lucrative jobs here, so some people can’t afford to pay for their kids to go to the parks," she said. "So the free days in the parks are really good for the peope who go to the parks. But I would like to see those free days in the parks be focused on getting locals to the parks."

While the friends group is currently focusing its efforts on Moab and the immediate area, Ms. Langianese said she hopes to eventually be able to reach out to the Denver and Salt Lake areas. 

"We’re focused on Moab just because we’re here, and the community is close to the park. But we’re also looking at San Juan County (to the south), the Four Corners School (of Outdoor Education) down there does a lot of work, we can partner with them," she said. "But we’re also looking at Denver and Salt Lake. That’s the ulimate goal, to include both of those urban areas as well.”

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I've lived in Moab for 6 years and I have many friends here who are second and third generation Moabites.  My wife and I moved to Moab in large part because of the easy access to two national parks and a state park, all within a scenic 45 minute drive from town.  I'm a nature and adventure photographer, so I'm in the parks (and the surrounding BLM & USFS land) all the time.  I was shocked to learn that most of my friends haven't stepped foot inside any of the parks since they were in grade school and some of them have never visited a local park.  
I remember discovering a slot canyon with a double waterfall at the end, thinking it must surely be a local's secret spot, only to find that none of my friends had even heard of it.  Visiting the parks simply isn't high on the priority list for many locals.  I do hope "Friends of Arches and Canyonlands National Park" are able to change that.      

To a certain extent, isn't part of it that we may tend to 'ignore' the things we live close to?  I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area and never visited many of the LA area 'tourist' spots & recreational areas while I lived there (Disney excepted, of course) unless we had 'company'.  I know, they aren't NPs, but the principle is the same.  When I later moved to Shasta County, same thing.  We rarely went to Lassen NP or other 'local' attractions like Shasta Dam or Whiskeytown Lake unless we had out of town visitors who wanted to go there (or my husband was hang gliding and I went there to pick him up!).  Both growing up & after I married, vacations were taken farther afield, wanting to 'get away' from home & see 'new' places.   Consider also, many gateway residents are people who fell in love with an area and moved there to be near that beloved place, be it Yellowstone or Point Reyes, and they will be involved and frequent visitors to whatever that area is.  Many others are there because that's where they were born or where work has taken them, period.  Some of those will never be invested in the location for many different reasons from financial difficulties to geographic non-affinity (can't think of another term; I'm a 'salt water girl' and if you plopped me down in Moab, I wouldn't spend much time in Mesa or Canyonlands, but would be running to the Gulf coast or Pacific beaches every chance I got!).  
Just my 2cents worth!      

It depends on the spot and the person.

I remember reading that Dean Potter (the infamous climber of Delicate Arch) was a resident of Moab. I'm guessing he moved there for the proximity to climbing spots. Quite a few outdoor enthusiasts have moved to Moab, although I'm guessing world-class climbers aren't typically year-round residents. They're the ones going around the world looking for the next climbing challenge.

I was on jury duty for five weeks in Martinez, California. I drove by John Muir NHS every single day on the way to the courthouse, and never visited once. The first time I'd stepped foot there was in 2007.

Familiarity does not breed contempt, but indifference.

I live in Swan Valley Idaho and it amazed me to find out the number of my children's friends had never been the the nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
I also am a photographer and am drawn to the parks natural amenities but many aren't as visually driven as some of us nature lovers to go out and get into the middle of it.

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