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Essential Friends + Gateways: High Tech Means High Touch With National Parks


As people become more and more wedded to mobile devices, the National Park System is trying to keep up—and so are its friends. To engage visitors and potential supporters, national park friends groups and foundations are enticing the public with high technology. Here are some savvy ways that’s happening.

Friends of Acadia: Engaging Young People

In 2011, Friends of Acadia created the Acadia Youth Technology Team, a combination of high school and college interns. The team works to implement technology in Acadia National Park in a way that engages youth without detracting from the visitor experience.

“It’s been so wonderful to work with Friends of Acadia and Acadia National Park,” says Sophia Krevans, a paid intern who has been working with the team since its inception. “We’ve gotten to see first-hand all of the work that goes into the national parks and the impact that Acadia has on its visitors. It has been amazing to work on projects that could help connect kids to nature. We’ve been excited to be part of a pilot program.”

The team spends time in the field, testing for cell phone service, and talking to rangers and parkgoers about what kinds of interpretation or information they would like to see in various locations. Then they brainstorm and develop prototypes for technologies that effectively feature Acadia’s offerings.

“We want to ensure that it is effectively connecting youth to nature and that visitors to the park do not find it distracting” said Ms. Krevans.

One prototype they’ve been working with is a Digital Media Interpretive Kit. This is a camera attached to a telescope and hooked up to an LCD screen. It is used to view nesting peregrine falcons so visitors with visual disabilities as well as young children can see the images.

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Grand Teton National Park: Your Own Cyber-Guide

An app called TravelStoryGPS is your personal, and personable, invitation to Grand Teton National Park. Developed by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and the Jackson Hole Land Trust, the app uses GPS points to trigger location specific audio presentations for your iPhone, iPad, or iPad Mini.

Simply plug the device into your vehicle’s audio system, drive through Grand Teton, and listen to your personal tour guide. Two routes are currently available: Wyoming Highway 22, between Jackson, Wyoming, and the Idaho State Line, and Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park between Moose, Wyoming, and the Jackson Lake Lodge.

TravelStoryGPS was built to stimulate interest in Jackson Hole non-profit land conservation efforts by fostering a personal connection to the local landscape. We’re proud to be one of those non-profits,” said Elisabeth Rohrbach, development and communications officer for the Park Foundation. “It’s our hope that this application shares our work with the thousands of visitors who travel the park road.”

Yellowstone Park Foundation: Fundraising For Yellowstone

Fundraising for Yellowstone National Park is the focus for the Yellowstone Park Foundation’s use of technology.

Through their “Become a Yellowstone Park Foundation Fundraiser” program, people who are passionate about Yellowstone can become direct fundraisers. Members can set up an online account, establish a goal, and email friends and family asking for support and explaining why donating to the Yellowstone Park Foundation is so important.

The program offers substantial guidance to make raising money as easy as possible. Fundraisers are notified whenever someone donates and are provided with sample thank you notes to make acknowledging donors quick and easy. Activity can even be linked to Facebook to expand the reach of each fundraiser. For more information about this great way to support the park, visit the Foundation’s website and go to this page

Trust for the National Mall: Digital Scavenger Hunts

As a relatively new organization, the Trust for the National Mall is actively working to build its support base. It is doing this through email newsletters and active participation on social media platforms like Twitter.

Most importantly though, the Trust is working to discover the best ways to use technology to educate people, especially children, about our nation’s history.

“The way I learned about Lincoln and the way kids today learn about Lincoln are very, very different,” says Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust. “I’ve gone out onto the National Mall and watched wonderfully educated guides talking to kids and the kids are just in a different space... They learn on their devices, they’re more connected to the cloud and technology world than with the direct interpretation that’s standard in the NPS and with most guides.”

One of the projects the Trust is working to implement is a kind of digital scavenger hunt. Families would use a device to go from one location to the next using clues and learning about the National Mall as they go. The Trust hopes to implement this technology at either the Washington Monument or Constitution Gardens.

Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation: Wrapping a Road in the Web

For a road-based park like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is aiming at mobile technology says Communications Director Liz Redding.

“We’ve begun to solicit new members and donations at many places along the Parkway using QR codes on donor boards,” she says. “It seems logical to encourage mobile giving while the potential donors are actually still mobile!”

The Foundation is also using the Internet to pierce the veil that bad weather can throw over a Parkway meander. By working with a local North Carolina mountain weather website, the Foundation has launched, a site with webcams at 18 locations along the road to let motorists or potential visitors assess current conditions and check the forecast.

As with QR codes, cell phone dead zones along the Parkway may limit access to the weather site, but the service may be “more valuable for people thinking about driving on the Parkway than for motorists already on the road,” Ms. Redding says. “That’s a big plus. It lets the visitor have a far more accurate expectation that they’ll have a good experience.”

And a good experience, after all, is what national parks are all about. With creative use of new technology, national park friends groups, foundations, and trusts are hoping to better connect the public to both the park experience, and the experience of supporting the parks.

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Is it possible to have an app that tells you all the national parks, national everything close to your home (via inserting your zip code)? For example, I am located in Chicago - what is the nearest national treasure I can visit? and the next nearest? It would be a great tool!

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