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NPS Director Jarvis: National Parks Are Losing Relevancy With Americans


Recent political skirmishes involving the National Park Service, from calls for some parks to be returned to the states to the U.S. House vote to gut the Antiquities Act, are signs that the national parks are losing relevancy with Americans, believes Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

The vote by the House on Wednesday, directed not specifically at the Park Service but at the president's ability to add national monuments to the park system, was just the most recent slight to the country's network of protected landscapes, cultural sites, and places of historic significance assembled as the National Park System.

The shutdown of the system last October due to the budget impasse in Congress raised animosity in some quarters against the Park Service. There also have been calls for Shenandoah National Park to be returned to Virginia and Ozark National Scenic Riverways to be given to Missouri to manage.

During a conversation Thursday in Salt Lake City, where Director Jarvis was attending a conference on parks, he raised the issue of national park relevancy, and how the upcoming centennial of the Park Service can improve the parks' connection with Americans.

“Here’s what I think about all this congressional and other action: I think it’s a symptom of a waning relevancy of the national parks to the American people," he said. "Which is why I go back to the centennial and our opportunity to rebuild that relationship.

"... What I sense, in terms of the flattening of (annual park) visitation, the flattening of the budget, these sort of legislative attacks on the underpinning of the Service, the challenges that we’re facing on a variety of fronts, are symptoms, to me, of a waning relevancy to the American people. And a lack of understanding of really what the Park Service provides to society," he said.

While the most visible aspect of the parks are grandiose, panoramic landscapes, the park system also plays a key role in providing clean air and clean water, serving as scientific laboratories, aiding individual health, providing economic returns, and serving as classrooms. But the Park Service hasn't always pitched those aspects as well as it has beautiful and majestic settings, said Director Jarvis.

"This concept that we’ve lived on to a certain degree -- 'build it and they will come' -- I think is not working as effectively as it has in the past," he allowed.

In discussing how the centennial campaign can be used to combat that flagging relevancy, Director Jarvis noted how the Park Service's first director, Stephen Mather, convinced the railroads to build the grand lodges to lure Americans to the parks and how he worked with the National Geographic Society to compile a portfolio showcasing the then-fledgling National Park System and place copies on the desks of every member of Congress. 

Four decades later, then-Park Service Director Conrad Wirth ushered in the Mission 66 campaign to rebuild the infrastructure of the park system to welcome members of the "Greatest Generation" who were discovering vacations on the road.

Now, in the age of Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and other social media outlets, along with smartphones and tablets, the Park Service needs to connect with the so-called Millennials, as well as reconnect with other American generations that have lost touch with the National Park System, said Director Jarvis. That is the goal of the "Find Your Park" campaign that will be launched early next year to build excitement in advance of the Park Service's centennial in 2016.

"What we’ve got in the Park Service is kind of a secret. We’ve got these incredible places that can be life-changing. And yet there’s a cohort of Americna people who don’t know that, haven’t experienced it, don’t even know it’s available to them," he said. "So I think we have to sort of bring the parks to the people, and let them know that this belongs to them and they can go and experience it, and they can even experience some of it right within their own communities.

"And by doing that, and if we are successful at that, if we do it very well, and we deepen this connection, a lot of these other symptoms will go away," said the director.


Are Americans becoming entertainment addicts? You can't go anyplace -- doctors waiting room, hospital waiting room, tire shop, auto repair center, a fast food joint or even a classy restaurant -- without having to endure an endlessly blatting TV set.

Maybe we can solve the problem by simply televising our parks and leaving them nearly empty for those of us who want the real thing.

Here's a brilliant idea, Jarvis. Instead of whining about why visitation to these public lands are down, why don't you quit instituting fees for people to use them. Did you ever consider that might be a reason for the decline? Your boy Ditmanson reduced visitation to the Smokies backcountry by %30 with his fee scheme there. I would like to see how those fees have affected others throughout the system. You arrogantly march on indifferent to the wishes of park users. The NPS culture is one that protects itself and is more worried about its leadership than the "consumers", which is the American taxpayer. Double taxing them to use their land is an affront. When it is cheaper for a family to go to a hotel than to put a tent on the ground, what do you think they are going to do? If we don't have to pay to park a car in the park, then we shouldn't have to pay to park a tent, especially when the NPS provides no amenities for that activity. Start listening to the actual park users instead of your moustached syncophants.

I don't agree at all that the National Parks are losing relevancy with the American people. The calls for some parks to be returned to the states and the fact that the House just voted to gut the Antiquities Act has everything to do with people in Congress who have no respect or desire to protect the unique and beautiful wonders of this country. We have people in Congress who believe that any land should be open for mining, fracking, drilling.....any type of exploitation for profit. Thank goodness there were people who had the foresight to protect some of our land. I do agree that the upcoming centennial can bring more people to visit the parks. The recession kept some people from traveling. The budget issues have cut much needed funding to maintain the parks and have resulted in usage fees. Use social media to connect with the younger generation, rekindle the the interest in older Americans to see the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and all the other amazing parks and monumnets. I am looking forward to the "Find Your Park" campaign. I have been to many parks and I want to add to the list in the future. I am not a backpacker or a hiker but I totally enjoy spending days discovering a park. I want to hear NPS Director Jarvis be positive when attending conferences! The National Parks~America's Best Idea

They are not loosing relevancy, visitors are finding the parks are over regulated and bloated with bureaucracy. Access and services are being cut, permits and fees are being increased, the NPS has made drastic changes over the last decade. People are complaining about it and congress is responding. NPS showed their true colors during the shutdown and I don't like it.

and I don't like it.

No kidding. I think we've all gotten that one note samba by now.

Other than the Red Queen school of management criticism ["Off with their heads!"], what are your constructive suggestions and efforts to change this? I mean, other than complaining here.

I have written my congressmen, entire committees, and signed petitions with no results. The response I get is usually some copy/pasted propaganda from some NGO. I think exposing and criticizing the DOI/NPS is important, they work for us, well at least they did. My understanding and observation is many of the elitist snobs that got us this mess here frequently visit this site.
What has to happen first is to put the visitors back near the top of the priority list. I don't think that will happen until we make changes from the very top. Our country's leadership is the problem, only those that lie to themselves would disagree.

The NPS did what it was required to do during the government shutdown. Revenue at the parks was lost, it was not something the NPS wanted. No one liked it but the NPS was not the group responsible for the shutdown. Changes have been made at the parks.......most for the good, some not. I am upset by the negative comment by Director Jarvis. He needs to be more proactive in marketing the park system and I hope the new campaign will do that. If not, he should be replaced.


A Director who protected and promoted a crook like Dave Uberuaga is the real "symtom of ... waning relevancy", not of the national parks, but of the opaque, bloated, increasingly dysfunctional National Park Service management.

Their scores in the 2013 'Best Places to Work' survey have dropped sharply to their lowest since the survey began:

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