On the eve of next year’s National Park Service centennial, evidence is growing that far more Americans are enchanted by their electronic devices than a walk in the woods, potentially depriving the parks of a new generation needed to ensure their protection and survival.
Baby boomers may have a love affair with the national parks, but park officials and advocates say the millennial generation and members of minority groups don’t necessarily share the same attachment.
“We still have people going to our parks. It’s just that the people who go don’t represent our nation,” said Christine Goepfert of the National Parks Conservation Association in St. Paul.
Moreover, as the nation’s urban population grows, more Americans live farther from many national parks and don’t have the money to travel to them, officials say.
If current trends continue, visits to national park areas — including the five in Minnesota — could fall sharply in a single generation.
“There is a fear there will be a drop-off unless we engage youth,” said John Anfinson, superintendent of the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in the Twin Cities. “We need them to become visitors, to be wowed by what they see. It’s about getting people to care about these great places in America.”
If there’s an urgency in rejuvenating national parks, officials say it’s because legions of younger stewards must be persuaded to take charge of them.
Such stewards — private citizens who are passionate about nature — secure private funding to complement federal appropriations and lobby government at all levels for park maintenance and programming.
“These are our future decisionmakers. It’s critical we get them connected. These parks are theirs,” Goepfert said.
About 95 percent of today’s national park visitors are white people, most of them older, and a disproportionate number earn more than $100,000 a year, according to a 2010 U.S. census report.
“That’s the demographic that tended to be our strongest base of supporters, the baby boomers,” said Glen Livermont, superintendent of Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota.
Apps vs. nature
Nothing shows today’s challenges for national parks more dramatically than the divide between nature and technology, advocates said.
While the natural world may offer a journey into the soul, technology offers young people another kind of world filled with apps and games. Surveys show they want to feel electronically connected even in parks meant to be protected against modern influences.
Young people “do value the outdoors,” Livermont said. “But what they also value just as much, and have concerns about in an outdoor setting, is losing their connectivity.”
The phenomenon called “nature-deficit disorder” helps explain the urgency for national parks to reinvent themselves for the next 100 years. Park Service and conservation groups so far have countered with interactive kiosks, Instagram contests, Twitter blasts and other elements from today’s electronics milieu.
The “Find Your Parks” campaign, unveiled this year, uses social media to promote the more than 400 national parks, which include national monuments (such as Grand Portage in northeastern Minnesota), national battlefields and national seashores.
But Julie Galonska, chief of interpretation at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, said that responsibility for safeguarding the environment extends beyond the National Park Service.
“It’s about our culture, how we interact with the natural world,” she said. “I’m hopeful that there’s a lot of people talking about this issue, and about how important it is to get outside. That’s the first step to make sure that connection stays strong in the future.”
More of today’s families take their vacations at water parks at resort complexes, raising a generation of children that is barely exposed to nature, said Deb Ryun of the St. Croix River Association.
“Many kids are in climate-controlled environments for the majority of their lives, so getting outside when the weather isn’t perfect, where there are bugs and unconfined animals, is very different from their normal,” Ryun said.
“Children have lives that are very structured and scheduled. Later as young adults it isn’t natural to visit a park where unstructured discovery reigns.”
Keeping youth engaged
In Minnesota, it might help that three of the state’s national park units — Voyageurs National Park near International Falls and the St. Croix Riverway, which protects the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers north and east of Stillwater, as well as the Mississippi River park — are water-based.
At the Mississippi park, 13,000 young Minnesotans paddle canoes each year. Many are children of color from Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Anfinson said parks that get visitors on the water are on the cutting edge of Park Service efforts to engage youth. And urban parks such as Mississippi River, he said, can lead the way into the National Park Service’s second 100 years.
“We’re reaching a very diverse young audience in hopes they’ll want to continue exploring it as young adults,” he said.
At a recent outing to Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul — a partner park within the Mississippi River national park area — schoolchildren scurried over carpets of yellow leaves to learn from Park Service rangers how to light fires, use a compass and build a shelter in the woods. The outing was typical of national park programs that seek to interest youth in nature.
Ranger Stefany Machado led a parade of fifth-graders from Heights Community School past sandstone formations to teach them how waterfalls are made. One of the students, Xzavion Martin, described nature as a “museum” full of discoveries.
“It’s like, adventurous — things you never found before — it’s life, old stuff that helps your knowledge,” Xzavion said.
Teacher Mike Amstutz, who accompanied his fifth-graders, said he hoped they would learn “to be more conscious of the destruction that human beings are capable of when it comes to their natural resources.”
At the St. Croix Riverway, park rangers engage youth through the “Rivers Are Alive” program, teaching them about plants and animals that sustain the river.
“We still see a lot of younger people out with their families,” Galonska said. “The real challenge is to keep them engaged.”