Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Spirit of the Forest

“No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley In Search of America, 1962


I pondered Steinbeck’s words on a recent visit to Muir Woods National Monument in California. Just the sheer size and majesty of these Sequoia groves can leave one dumbstruck. It made me wonder how does one begin to interpret a place of awe? How does one describe the indescribable? Or does one even need to?

Edmund Burke, the 18th century British philosopher, did what philosophers do best and thought about this very topic. He separated these jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring landscapes from those that are merely beautiful or picturesque. He instead called these places sublime, as they can cause intense emotions by just experiencing the vastness of nature (Burke, A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, 1757). Shortly after Burke’s treatise, early American painters such as the Hudson River School embraced this concept by painting sweeping views of the American wilderness.


The folks at the National Park Service have done an outstanding job with the interpretive signage at Muir Woods National Monument. The signs are infrequent along the main trails, and usually just signal the arrival into a new area. I was impressed with the behavioral signs, such as the one pictured above, which advises visitors to “walk quietly.” Amazingly, it worked, and with the thousands of visitors per day at that park, hardly a human noise could be heard.


While the signs were informational on the age of the redwoods, impacts from fires, and so on; they successfully conveyed a strong sense of place. By incorporating richly detailed graphics of forest life (see above), and having provocative titles (Spirit of the Forest), the signs seemed at home there. They didn’t contrast the landscape but appeared to be organic and grow from the forest floor.

In my opinion, sublime landscapes should not require a lot of signage or need to announce why they are special. That’s already apparent to the visitor. But they should tap into the spirit of the place– in graphics, content and design. It may not be possible to adequately sum up a place that is deeply layered in time, culture, and amazing biota; such as found in Muir Woods. But it is possible to embed a level of respect and care about the environment that tells a far greater story.

Categories: General | Leave a comment

May is preservation AND wetlands month

The following is an update from Rob Orrison, publicity chair for this year’s National Interpreter’s workshop, November 10-14 in Virginia Beach!

All of us wear multiple hats – part naturalist, part historian, part scientist among others. The greatness of NAI is its diversity and breadth of knowledge of its members. This month, our history oriented members celebrate Historic Preservation Month and use this time to promote the importance of not just preserving historic structures and landscapes, but also INTERPRETING those resources.

NAI2015 will feature various local historic sites in and outside of Virginia Beach. Mostly known for its natural beauty and beaches, the City of Virginia Beach also operates several historic house museums. These include the Adam Thoroughgood House (ca. 1719), Lynnhaven House (ca. 1725) and the Francis Land House (ca. 1805). We are planning an off-site session that will visit each of these historic structures to not just learn about their history but also how staff and volunteers are building collaborations to make them successful and relevant in the community.

But let’s not forget that May is also National Wetlands Month! Interpretive opportunities abound in our wetlands and wetlands management areas. One of the nation’s most unique wetlands habitat is the Great Dismal Swamp located approximately 20 miles from Virginia Beach. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974 and includes over 112,000 acres. Plans are in the works for an off-site trip to the Great Dismal Swamp for an all-day paddle adventure. You will follow a guide through the 3,100 acres of Lake Drummond and various channels of the swamp to explore this vast ecosystem.

NAI 2015 logoFinally, we can give you a glimpse into how the Conference schedule will be laid out. The conference will officially open with an evening off-site event on Tuesday, November 10th. Pre-conference sessions will take place on Monday and Tuesday, November 9th and 10th, followed by two days of sessions and activities followed by a day of off-site sessions on Friday, November 13th and another day of sessions on Saturday, November 14th. The scholarship auction will take place on Friday evening after our off-site sessions.

Our next update should have many more details and deadline for registration and volunteer opportunities. To stay up to date with be sure to “Like” our NAI 2015 Facebook page at We look forward to seeing everyone here in Virginia this November!

Rob Orrison, Publicity Chair #NAI2015

Categories: General | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Problem with ‘Find Your Park’

The National Park Service recently announced its big push towards its 100th birthday. The ‘Find Your Park’ campaign is designed to “spread the word about the amazing places we [the NPS] manage, the inspirational stories that the national parks tell, our country’s natural resources, and our diverse cultural heritage.”

Worthy goals indeed.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that ‘Find Your Park’ is a slick marketing campaign designed to attract Millennials to the parks. “If we were a business and that [Baby Boomers] was our [only] clientele, then over the long term, we would probably be out of business,” NPS Director Jon Jarvis told “The question that we’re facing is who’s going to be the next generation of park supporters.”

Absolute balderdash.

Director Jarvis is asking a question that already has a clear answer. In the process, he is passing on an opportunity to reinvigorate our deteriorating parks. It’s a travesty.

Consider the following:

Colorado College’s annual State of the Rockies Project consists, in part, of surveys that “explore opinions in each state [Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming] and for the six-state region [as a whole] concerning conservation, environment, energy, the role of government, trade-offs with economies, and citizen priorities.”

The 2015 survey paid particular attention to the views of Millennials in the West.

Here’s what it found:

  • A whopping 98% of Millennials have visited public lands in the past.
  • 62% have done so six or more times in the last year and 45% have done so 10 or more times.
  • 85% of Millennials support the use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments – 5% higher than average across all generations.
  • 85% believe “protecting” and “conserving” natural areas is “very important.”
  • 75% support using resource royalties earned by the government for conservation and recreation programs.
  • 93% believe tourism and recreation “will play an important role” in the economy of their state moving forward, compared to 77% who believe the same for mining.
  • 82% of Millennials cited the “ability to live near, recreate on, and enjoy public lands” as a reason for living in the West, with 52% indicating it is the single most important factor.

I would hardly say that a generation which cites public lands as a major influence on residency decisions is a generation that needs convincing to visit the national parks.  Indeed, all this talk of national parks losing their relevancy among ‘the young folk’ is tiresome, unfounded, and a distraction from the very real challenges of chronic underfunding and low visitation rates among minorities and inner-city residents.

There are undoubtedly readers out there who would take issue with me….the Colorado College survey is of residents of a sparsely-populated section of the country….NPS visitor surveys and a walk around a campground show nothing but grey hair…the sky is falling!

Let’s take these one-by-one.

  1. The Colorado College Report isn’t representative. It isn’t a national sample. But if Millennials are so clueless about and disinterested in national parks, would 62% of the Millennials in the American West have visited public land 6 or more times in the past year? Shouldn’t that number be a least a little lower if Millennials have such low opinions of national parks?
  2. NPS visitor surveys show nothing but grey hair! I’ve handed those surveys out before. The distribution method produces a sample that, at best, is only vaguely generalizable and is hardly random. It’s probably the best the agency can do, but making policy decisions based on such surveys is very problematic.
  3. I walked around my campground/picnic area/etc the other night and saw nothing but more grey hair! You’ve got an anecdote? I do too. I went for a hike at a nearby state park a couple Saturdays ago. Literally every single group of visitors was dominated by Millennials. There wasn’t a senior citizen in sight. I should note, too, that the closest city to the park is Cedar Rapids, Iowa (quite pleasant, but hardly a bastion of youth).
  4. But…but…but…iThingys…Netflix…the sky is falling!

Indeed, the sky is falling.

  • Inner-city residents lack the mobility (both literally and the socio-economic sort) and leisure time to visit places like Big Bend, Great Smokies, or Olympic thousands of miles away. The national parks really are irrelevant for many of these people.
  • People of colour visit parks in distressingly small numbers and report intense feelings of discomfort when doing so.
  • Congress would rather add new units to the system than fully-fund the system that we have now (Great Smokies’ Trails Forever program, in which private money will eventually fund an endowment to pay for all trail maintenance in perpetuity because the park can’t afford something as basic as trail maintenance, is exhibit #1 on this point).
  • The NPS maintenance backlog continues to balloon – 90% of all NPS pavement is in ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ condition, 28 NPS bridges are ‘structurally deficient,’ and 36% of all trails are in ‘poor’ or ‘seriously deficient’ condition.
  • Interpretation and education budgets are almost non-existent. For example, Great Smokies currently offers not a single guided hike on weekends. Ozark Riverways’ only visitor center is closed on weekends for 8 months out of the year. Yosemite’s interpretation staff has been cut from 75 to 16 in recent years.
  • Young people who want to start career with a federal land management agency face enormous, almost insurmountable challenges in doing so (but thanks to a Find Your Park-related program, they’ll be able to volunteer for a while and then be hired non-competitively at American Eagle.)

Director Jarvis, rather than tackling these very real, very pressing problems, is instead squandering the NPS Centennial. Millennials do not need to be convinced of the relevancy of national parks. In an increasingly urban and diverse society, inner-city residents need access to parks. Visitors of all backgrounds need to feel welcome in parks. Congress needs to stop adding new units until we can pave the roads and fix the bridges we already have, not to mention hire an appropriate number of interpreters.

All across the national park system, visitor centers, trails, and exhibits built for NPS’ 50th Anniversary (the Mission 66 era) still greet visitors.

50 years after the current anniversary, its only legacy is likely to be a stack of brochures gathering dust and whatever is left after the Budweiser-sponsored ‘mega-concerts’ that are coming to a national park near you (because nothing attracts the young ‘uns like a partnership with a company whose latest slogan is ‘The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night’).

What a shame.

This entry cross-posted at, where the author writes about public lands policy and interpretation.

Categories: General | Leave a comment

Does Every Program Need a Theme?

I am about to pose a question that might verge on blasphemy within the professional NAI community. Are you ready? Here it comes: Is it possible that not every program needs a theme?


Did I really just write that in a forum seen by my peers? Will I be banished as a pariah interpreter? Will I lose my professional certification? Have I gone crazy?

Well, yes, many who know me will vouch that I might be a touch crazy. But hopefully I won’t be banished or professionally rebuffed. Let me explain what I mean …

First of all, I strongly believe in the value and effectiveness of thematic interpretation for the majority of situations and program types. I’ve had years of training in this method, have spent years training other interpreters to employ it, and firmly believe that most programs should have a theme. Like you, I believe this is the best way to get your message across to your audience.

But … yes, here’s the but! Is it possible that some programs don’t need to have a “message” per se? Can the purpose of your program be to create an experience – instead of conveying a main idea, create a special moment? Not a lesson but an impression? Is a program with this as its main goal ever appropriate?

Here’s what this kind of program might look like: Maybe instead of structuring your program as supporting points that build to your main idea, you structure this program as steps to prepare your audience to be receptive to a moment of direct experience with nature. Begin with an activity to break the ice and loosen them up. Then get them warmed up to the habit of focusing their senses and paying attention. Then set up the direct encounter with something special in nature. Finally, give them a chance to reflect or share so their mind can process this moment into a memory. This progression might be familiar to you if you’ve studied the “flow learning” method advocated by Joseph Cornell.

In the end, they haven’t really learned a “lesson,” but they go home with a special memory that they might carry with them forever. They’ll tell their teacher, their grandparents, and their cousins about how they got to hold a crayfish, or see a hiding deer fawn, or hear the call of a bald eagle. Can this sometimes be enough?

For example, consider a bird walk for families with young children. You could design a bird walk in the traditional way with a theme. Perhaps the message would be “Birds need safe places to raise their young.” Along the walk, you might visit several areas where birds are nesting and cover supporting ideas such as that some birds build their nests on tree limbs while some build them inside cavities, etc. By the end, your participants would hopefully take away your message.

Or, you could design the program to build up to the experience of a child holding a baby bird in their hands. Maybe you start with some kind of fun activity where the kids try to build a nest like a bird. Then maybe you go for a walk and warm up their senses by having them pretend they are parent birds looking for bugs to feed their babies. Then you arrive at your purple martin colony, where you watch the parents flying around, peek inside an actual nest with babies, and finally let the kids hold a baby in their hand! At this point, you just allow the kids to experience a magical moment with the baby bird, and don’t try to “teach” too much. The important thing going on here is the connection, not the information. The feeling, not the facts. The memory that is getting created. On the walk back, to help them reflect on the experience, maybe you ask them each to tell you two words that describe the baby bird.

Is a program like this acceptable as an interpretive program? Is it good? Does it fall short? Or does it have a place in our programming?

Personally, I think these kinds of programs are valuable. Especially in today’s world, where not only kids but people of all ages are having fewer and fewer direct experiences with nature on their own, I think that nature centers can try to facilitate these experiences. I think that sometimes setting up a simple but powerful experience, without trying to teach a lesson or convey a lot of facts and information, can go a long way towards getting people to feel that basic connection with nature and animals that is necessary as a starting point for any kind of care or concern for the natural world.

I don’t know. I could be lazy. I could be a heretic. I could be a bad interpreter. But I do know that when a little kid holds a baby bird, their eyes widen, their mouth drops open, and sometimes they tremble with excitement. Is that sometimes enough?

Categories: Discussion topic, General | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: