Curtis Atkins, NPS
FeatureAuthor: Steven Shaw
They are called our nation’s “Best Idea,” yet when many Millennials and Generation X members think of our National Parks, all they can recall are fleeting moments from PBS and Discovery TV programs. With the National Park Service’s (NPS) centennial looming on the horizon, much attention has been turned on the parks, and the NPS in general. Yes, the NPS has a terrible $11,000,000,000 maintenance backlog. Yes, that’s a lot of zeros. Yes, the majority of visitors are elderly, white and retired. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, although we consider any visitor to our National Parks a good thing. That said, there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of improving diversity and getting our youth interested in the great outdoors.
Toward that end, the NPS and the Obama administration are launching programs to get more people to visit our parks. The first, “Every Child in a Park” was announced earlier this year. All fourth graders and their families get free admission to parks for the entire school year! The government is also awarding grants to schools, especially low-income inner city schools, so they can afford to bus kids to and from the parks. The parks are also adding positions to teach and inspire the younger generations about parks and the outdoors.
The second is called “Find Your Park” and is the third major campaign in National Park history. First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush are co-chairing the campaign whose goal is to raise awareness, support and to garner a more diverse visitor base to the parks. It’s a push that brought in big name corporate sponsors such as REI, American Express, Budweiser and Disney, to name a few.
The fact that the majority of National Park’s visitors are elderly really should not come as a surprise. After WWII there was a push to rebuild the infrastructure of the parks and get families to go “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” The slogan was kind of a theme for the baby boomer generation. NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis says "they came in droves, and in the back seat of that station wagon in the national parks were today's boomer generation… They are our base today ... The question that we're facing is who's going to be the next generation of park supporters."
In 2014, 292 million people visited National Parks. The average age of a visitor to Denali is 57, Yellowstone is 54, and even Rocky Mountain National Park (which is right outside of the young, thriving outdoors-Mecca(s) of Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins) has an average age of about 46! The “Find Your Park” initiative aims to show people that National Parks are not all just out west! There are urban sites, like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument. Battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam or other scenic stretches the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Find Your Park campaign aims to inspire the connected generation to disconnect and get outside.
In the days of Facebook updates, Instagram, Twitter and whatever the latest hip social media network is… Finding a Park is easy… but no one will ever be able to hashtag, snapchat or tweet the feeling of seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time or the smell of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley after a spring rain. Perhaps they had it right in 50’s, Find a Park… not with your smartphone… but through the window of a Chevrolet.