The National Park Service (NPS) is looking for a few good kids.
Actually, when push comes to shove, they’re looking for a lot of them. With the 100th anniversary of the NPS approaching in 2016, there’s a growing realization that if America’s national parks are going to remain viable, they need to remain relevant to young people, urban residents and other “under-engaged” populations.
“Our national parks are beloved but the reality is that the consumers of national parks today have been (aging) baby boomers,” said Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation (NPF), the official charity of America’s national parks.
“The millennial generation behind them was the first group to grow up in the digital world and they didn’t do the proverbial trip to the national parks when they were kids,” he told NBC News. “Those are missed opportunities.”
In an effort to reverse the trend, NPF recently announced $465,000 in grants designed to “connect diverse, underserved and under-engaged populations with America's national parks.” Part of the group’s 4-year-old America’s Best Idea program, the funds will be split among 34 park units. Supported parks and programs include:
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah: 25 disadvantaged Southern Paiute youth will participate in a 4-night field camp that will combine camping with educational activities highlighting traditional customs, land management practices and career-building skills.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: 2-day family camp outs are geared toward families of color that don’t have a tradition of going to national parks. In addition to learning basic outdoor skills, such as setting up tents and building campfires, the program is designed to demonstrate that camping can be an affordable, family-oriented vacation.
- Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia: 6 homeless high-school students will be provided with month-long paid internships. The goal is to provide job skills, promote community involvement and expose the students to the NPS and Youth Conservation Corps as means of possible future summer employment.
At Chattahoochee, for example, those students will learn about the park and the NPS while building trails, attending classes and working on their resumes.
“What we’re doing is reaching out to the people in our community who might not have the means to visit the park — or even know we’re here,” said public information officer Rudy Evenson. “It’s a good opportunity for the Park Service to give these kids some ideas of what they can do with their own futures and how they can connect with their national parks.”
Good intentions notwithstanding, such programs are also a recognition of the fact that the park system hasn’t kept up with the cultural and demographic shifts taking place in the U.S.
“There are very, very few places of historic significance in the system that represent African Americans, Asian American, Latinos, Pacific Islanders,” said Celinda Penas, NPS senior advisor, Latino Affairs.
“If people don’t see themselves when they visit the national parks — either in the stories that are being interpreted or in the work force — they’re not going to care about the parks,” she told NBC News. “If the Park Service wants to continue as a viable, visible entity, it has to have buy-in from the greater population.”
Little wonder, then, that recent additions to the system have included national monuments honoring Cesar Chavez, Harriet Tubman and Charles Young.
At the same time, however, budget cuts have put increased pressure on existing programs, including hiring, outreach and maintenance. With the sequester requiring NPS to cut 5 percent from its budget, the parks are expected to hire fewer seasonal rangers, cut back on visitor services and fall further behind on an already mountainous maintenance backlog.
All of which underscores the increasing importance of public-private partnerships. According to Mulholland, NPF and groups tied to individual parks raised more than $150 million for the parks last year.
“There’s a great deal of generosity among the American people,” he told NBC News. “They’ll pay for education programs and trail restoration and to get diverse groups to the parks. What they won’t pay for is mowing the grass and cleaning the toilets because they believe Congress has a commitment to maintain the parks.
“If Congress will keep up its end of the bargain, the American people will continue to step up.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.