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Enjoying Winter And Pondering The Relevancy Of National Parks


How relevant are national parks to the American public? Back in 2014, then-Park Service Director Jon Jarvis raised that question in a conversation, explaining that “the challenges that we’re facing on a variety of fronts are symptoms, to me, of a waning relevancy to the American people.” That comment arose as we discussed Congress’s collective shoulder shrug over issues facing the National Park Service.

Then, in 2015 during the lead up to National Park Service Centennial, a record 307.2 million visited the National Park System, followed by nearly 331 million during the centennial year of 2016. Relevancy? From a numbers standpoint, that concern seems to have been overcome. But has it? Do sheer numbers reflect that more people are truly interested in coming to the National Park System to marvel at their wonders, learn about the nation’s collective culture, to relax? Or do they reflect a desire by travelers to crisscross the country and document as many places they can visit, regardless of what those places reflect or represent?

It’s one thing to snap a selfie in front of Old Faithful and then depart for another in front of the Grand Teton, and quite another to soak up some of the history that explains why parks were set aside, to study wildlife on the landscape and appreciate their relationships to one another and to the landscape, to come to learn who Enos Mills and Marjory Stoneman Douglas were and the roles they played in the parks.

Unfortunately, to date the Park Service hasn't embarked on a path to measure "relevancy" among the system's visitors.

"We do not have a tool or tools that would help us measure relevancy. I did speak with one of our social scientists who pointed out that we'd need a thorough approach which would involve both indirect and direct inquiry," Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson told me. "By that we mean asking the public if national parks and the NPS are relevant to them. That would first require cognitive pretesting to see if respondents understand and interpret relevancy the same way that our bureau does - and we'd need an NPS definition of relevancy. Secondly, we could see a series of indirect questions on experience, use, and history of visiting parks, interacting with NPS programs and virtual content engagement. Lastly though still as part of indirect relevancy questions, we could explore existence values. Collectively, such an approach would allow us to understand the construct of public relevancy of national parks, programs and other services of the NPS."

This question of relevancy is one we’ll continue to explore, for only if park visitors find relevance in the National Park System will they hold it dear and advocate for it. While you, too, ponder the relevancy of the parks, save some time to explore them this winter.

In the pages of our Essential Park Guide Winter 2017-18 we hope to entice you with suggestions on how to enjoy the park system in the coming months. On those long winter nights when you can’t be in a national park, planning next summer’s adventures might be the next best thing. Rita Beamish on page 22 entices you to consider a long walk with her travels along the John Muir Trail last summer, and we’ve added a supplement to her story to help you navigate a long-distance hike of your own, whether on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail or, perhaps, the North Country National Scenic Trail.

We have also, of course, provided some book reviews to inspire you to get out into the park system, and included an update on what some of the national parks’ best friends are doing to benefit these wondrous places. Stay warm this winter, and stay inspired by visiting your favorite park!

Traveler footnote: You can dive right into the entire guide now by purchasing a hard copy for $10.95 by clicking on the link below, or by downloaded a digital copy from our eLibrary for $1.99. Or, wait as we roll out each story indivdiually in the weeks to come. 

New Publication

By Kurt Repanshek in National Parks Traveler

46 pages, published 10/31/2017

National parks are incredible winter destinations. National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide for Winter 2017-18 helps you get the most from this season in the National Park System.
Featured Article
Park Guide


Excellent questions, Kurt. I suspect that most park rangers would really prefer that more visitors stay a while and learn somthing about their park. Half a century ago the biologist Olaus Murie wrote that "what many of us are worrying about is the understandable desire to make a national park be all things to all people. . . I believe that the national park should be for the purpose of getting contact with nature. Can't we work toward simplicity and let nature have a chance to speak to us?" To accomplish this in today's crowded parks will take a robust interpretation program that makes it attractive for visitors to stay an extra day and get out on the trails instead of moving on to the next park on their list.

P.S., I look forward to reading the Winter Essential Park Guide, and perhaps getting down to Bryce Canyon for a snowshoe or ski if the weather cooperates.  Great Basin NP, too looks intriguing in winter. Here in Utah, the Park Service likes to say "half the park is after dark," but they could also add, "a quarter of the crowds are after September."

As with most things of value, too many take them for granted and assume they will always be available. When thinking of rocks and mountains and lakes and such, all too many think that they will always be available, when wanted and as needed. Unfortunately, there is too much potential for them to be ephemeral, in particular in this current 'extract the dollarable' feast that has been unleashed. The balloon is pretty, but when the air is extracted it is simply a limp piece of rubber. Once the lake runs dry, you have drying mud. And so on.

These are some of the reasons why I think that the parks are even more relevant day by day, in particular when they are under threat.

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