Changing population an issue for NPS |

Changing population an issue for NPS

Over arrowhead-shaped cookies, park superintendents from across the United States met at Snowbird on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the future of parks.

Some 300 parks were represented at the ummit, mostly by park superintendents, but also by regional directors and emerging leaders. They used the Summit as an opportunity to network and discuss the plight of parks, many of which face declining budgets and visitation.

National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, who made her second visit to Utah in as many months, brought with her three main goals for discussion during the event. In a letter to her peers, she expressed those goals: "engaging Americans with their park, increasing the capacity of the system and preparing the next generation of leaders."

During the two days of the meeting, superintendents addressed Bomar’s points through keynote lectures on demographics, partnerships and leadership development. The schedule also included a preview of Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary, and, of course, discussion on the imminent Park Service Centennial in 2016.

Emilyn Sheffield, Ph.D and professor of Recreation and Parks Management at Chico State in California, spoke to superintendents on Tuesday and addressed engaging the public as a problem of demographics.

"Change, without change, can’t happen," she said. Although the parks are facing severe challenges right now due to technological repercussions and a shift in population, these changes, she said, can provide opportunity. As evidence, she referenced the 1800s, a period in which the U.S. rapidly industrialized and integrated different demographics. That period of time also gave birth to national parks.

The biggest challenge, however, facing the parks could well be population growth and change. Those born before 1967, said Sheffield, will witness a doubling in the population during their lifetime. Nearly 55 percent of the next 100 million people to populate the U.S., and bring the total populace to 400 million, will be foreign-born, many of Latin American descent.

This swing in population could present a major problem for the parks which currently see very little visitation from minorities. Most park visitors, currently, are non-Hispanic whites with high incomes.

One expected note was that only about 10 or 11 percent of people polled claim no interest in the National Parks. Sheffield claimed that the values and ideals upon which the National Parks were founded, still hold great appeal to the public today, regardless of race of race and origin.

To prove her point, Sheffield referenced several programs at parks that integrate children of different racial backgrounds such as Yosemite Volunteer Association and children’s programming at Valley Forge.

A breakout session following that keynote lecture, however, spoke to a different method of attracting minorities to parks. Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, has piloted a program to recruit and train inner-city students for National Park Service careers. The bottom line for these young people, and for the program, is that they bring their experiences with the National Parks to their communities and foster the future of the parks through word-of-mouth.

Since 2000 the program has involved some 70 high school students recommended by instructors throughout Los Angeles and Ventura County. These students are hired by the park at successive pay grades and ultimately enrolled in a non-competitive hiring program so that they can find work at parks as far afield as Acadia in Maine. Of the 70 enrolled, only about 15 have dropped out entirely. As many of the students involved have gone on to higher education in schools that include Harvard and Stanford, their choices to leave probably had more to do with exploring other options than anything else. Smeck and his associates said that regardless of their ultimate career, these students would be park stewards for life.

The audience of fellow superintendents was so impressed with Smeck’s presentation that murmurs of reclassifying the session as a planning meeting were mentioned. Such a meeting would make an action plan possible therefore expediting the process of calling for similar programs to be created near urban centers, available in nearly every park region. One superintendent even said frankly that programs like the one at Santa Monica did not exist elsewhere because superintendents were too slow and bureaucratic to push them through. Despite the challenges, consensus from the group indicated that they would like to change that from seaboard to seaboard.

Debate at this session, and others, throughout the Summit rarely became heated as the park world is a relatively tight-knit community. Msot professionals who reach the level of superintendent have worked at several parks before they step into those shoes. Cordell Roy, Utah state coordinator, said that the Summit allowed park staff "an opportunity to reconnect."

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