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 Mashable.com. “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 chanceblogs.wordpress.com, where the author writes about public lands policy and interpretation.

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