Park Service challenged with appealing to digital generation without giving in to commercialization
Lovers of the outdoors or American history have surely set foot in the bounds of the National Park Service (NPS) at some point, whether on a hike through the Appalachian Trail or Death Valley National Park, or a visit to the White House or homes of past presidents like John Adams or FDR.
But NPS visitation, at about 275 million a year, is stagnating, says David Barna, NPS director of public affairs, with the typical visitor more likely to be older, middle class, and white - as opposed to African American, Hispanic, or Asian American - or to come from a younger demographic that may be more familiar with video games and other electronic media than hiking or other outdoor activities.
"Our recent immigrants don't come with the same knowledge of American history" as the traditional NPS visitor, explains Barna, a 12-year NPS veteran. "We see our role as an educator growing, to keep us relevant. That's certainly true of scenic parks out West, too. How do we keep the parks exciting to a growing generation who is interested in being on the Internet or downloading songs and not so interested in outdoor activities, as was the case when I was young?"
Perhaps providing podcasts to visitors could be part of the solution, or a more interactive NPS Web site, though within the NPS an older generation of rangers and administrators tends to favor the traditional means of education, such as interpretive guides. Exactly what the answer to this problem is hasn't been determined, says Barna, but it won't be PR agencies that solve it. Unlike some other government agencies, and certainly unlike other major tourist attractions, the NPS is not permitted to advertise or hire PR agencies or specialists, as stated in the 1916 act that created the agency.
The pressure to commercialize is heavy, nevertheless, in part from local communities whose economies depend on visitors to NPS parks. As a result, the NPS encountered a huge communications problem with both its employees and volunteers and the public at large a couple of years ago when a draft proposal by a Bush political appointee within the Interior Department, of which the NPS is part, sought to provide more opportunity for recreational vehicle use within parks.
Many of the NPS' 20,000 paid employees and 40,000 volunteers have some very strong opinions when it comes to the future of any or all of the NPS' 390 "units" - more than 84 million acres supervised by the NPS that includes national parks, lakeshores, trails, battlefields, and historical sites. After receiving about 54,000 comments from the public on the proposed policy changes, the NPS issued management policies in 2006 that largely retained the old policies, limiting use of off-road vehicles, jet skis, and other recreational vehicles within park grounds.
"It's terrible when you have controversy like that, but then it shows the level of devotion that people have to the parks," says Kristen Brengel, a lobbyist with the Wilderness Society, which helped lead a campaign to stop the proposed changes. "Attracting a historic amount of comment on the issue was a big component of why they made changes to those proposed policies. They were receptive and I think, in some cases, surprised at how angry people were."
The NPS national public affairs office consists of five people, and each of the seven regions into which the NPS' 390 parks are divided, including the National Capital Region in Washington, also employ full-time public affairs officers. About one-third of the parks also have public affairs officers on staff, and Barna says public affairs officials trained in managing information on forest fires, stranded hikers, or other emergencies are located throughout the park system and on call to travel when crises occur.
In helping the NPS to appeal to future generations, electronic media may also help the agency compensate for tight budgets that have kept the it from refurbishing as many visitor centers as it would like, or employing as many paid staff as needed for patrols or educational duties. Already, www.nps.gov is the most visited government Web site, receiving about 1 million hits a day.
Barna says funding from other agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, means the NPS gets more support than meets the eye. But Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and an executive council member of the Council of NPS Retirees, points out that the public doesn't really see the full effect of strangled budgets.
"The Park Service typically puts up a good front," Wade says, so the average visitor may not realize the increased risk of, say, poaching, or the presence of fewer interpretive guides. "The parks are doing the best they can; I think we can all agree on that."
At a glance
National Park Service
$2.256bn in fiscal year 2006, $2.156bn request in fiscal year 2007
Public Affairs Budget:
National Parks magazine, National Geographic, Backpacker, Outside, and numerous travel magazines
Public Affairs Team:
Five officers based in Washington; more than 30 full-time PA officers nationwide