The American Recreation Coalition (ARC) on June 4 welcomed Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, as its special guest speaker at the Great Outdoors Week Recreation Exchange, hosted jointly by ARC and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
While complimenting the readiness of new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Jarvis’s remarks covered a number of key topics, including the challenges currently facing the National Park Service (NPS), the agency’s upcoming 2016 Centennial and new agency initiatives, according to a press release.
As it prepares for its second century, the National Park Service is encountering a number of significant challenges, from essentially flat visitation to aging infrastructure, and Jarvis commented that the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among visitors and the irrelevance of the parks to too many young people were even greater concerns than the lack of growth in visitation. “We’ve got to connect to all Americans,” he said, describing the lack of diversity and youth as “a recipe for decline.”
Another challenge cited by the director is funding. He described both the current economic situation and the federal budgetary process as “tough,” explaining that the Park Service is faced with the difficult task of managing “a perpetuity mission on an annual appropriation.”
Directly related to the funding issue is the agency’s $11 billion infrastructure-maintenance backlog, half of which involves roads. Other challenges include the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, Americans’ lack of interest in history and the need to enhance technical connectivity – seen as absolutely essential by young people – in the national parks.
Despite this daunting list, Jarvis remains optimistic. “They’re all fixable with some work,” said Jarvis, who described the Centennial — to be celebrated on August 25, 2016 — as an opportunity not only to celebrate but also to prepare for a second century of stewardship and public engagement by laying out specific actions to meet specific goals. Four goals that will be the focus of Centennial preparations entail connecting people to parks, advancing the agency’s educational role, preserving special places and enhancing organizational excellence.
Jarvis feels that connecting people to parks begins in neighborhoods, noting that agency outreach programming needs “to go to where the people are.”
As examples of the Park Service’s educational mission, he cited the lessons that can be learned by visiting Gettysburg or Vicksburg rather than just reading about them.
Meanwhile, Jarvis reminded the group that the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, was a marketing expert from the private sector who had successfully sold the national parks – “in the middle of nowhere” – to both the U.S. Congress and American people by partnering with the tourism industry, represented in those days by the railroads with the National Geographic Society and with the artistic community to attract people to these special places.
Today, in contrast, while the agency’s Organic Act tasks the NPS with both the regulation and promotion of the national parks, the regulatory side has been dominant.
Yet, he characterized the job done on the promotional side as “not so hot,” although, he says, the situation is changing. For one thing, Grey Advertising has been hired by the National Park Foundation to develop an over-arching campaign strategy for the national parks in conjunction with the Centennial. Utilizing this effort to build awareness of the National Park System will take a real marketing strategy, he stated, likening it to the RV industry’s Go RVing campaign, and will involve the use of well known figures from sports and Hollywood, as well as iconic events like the Tournament of Roses Parade and halftime at the Super Bowl. A successful campaign will also mean increased visitation and the development of a constituency for parks – as both stewards and philanthropists – among the next generation.
The agency, in turn, is also looking at new models for financing its operations, he reported, and is carefully evaluating the many different ideas for sustainable supplemental funding introduced recently during a gathering at the Bipartisan Policy Center. And he praised the innovative ideas that are coming from urban parks, involving community engagement, new partnerships, and the restoration of both lands and waters. Linking outdoor experiences with improved health offers another avenue for increasing interest in and support for the outdoors.
In fact, the medical community should be prescribing the outdoors, Jarvis asserted, telling people to “Go RVing, go fishing . . . take a hike and call me in the morning.”
He noted that the National Park Service would be co-sponsoring a conference with the Centers for Disease Control in 2014 on “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” – in partnership with national park concessioners – through which healthy food will be introduced into the park experience. And Jarvis invited the audience to join him on the national mall the following day for a special event featuring healthy food.
Jarvis said land-management agencies were working together to improve connectivity and access to public lands and have become involved in initiatives recognizing the contributions of various ethnic groups and appealing to children as well, including a new partnership with Sesame Street. He also reported that a new study on the economic impact of national parks was being undertaken and should be ready by 2016.
He concluded his remarks by describing the national parks as a great – and distinctively American – concept to establish places where all the people can enjoy the outdoors. “We are looking to use every one of our tools in our toolbox and every one of our partners . . . and every one of the land management agencies . . . to really re-engage the American public in this extraordinary asset,” he said.
Asked afterward during a question-and-answer period about the impact of the sequestration process, Jarvis described actions that had been taken to absorb the mandated 5% reduction in funding. Among them are delayed openings, facility closures, reduced hours and programs, more deferred maintenance, a hiring freeze, a decrease in seasonal employees and furloughs of park police. “I think we will muddle through this summer,” he said. “We didn’t close any parks.”
But he did express concern about the impact of additional funding cuts. All across the country, he asserted, parks are economic engines for the areas that surround them, meaning that park closures would impact far more than the parks themselves.
So, what’s his message to Congress?
“What we do is not a cost,” he said. “It’s an investment. It has enormous return.”