Documentary puts parks' futures in focus

The National Park Service finds itself in the midst of a unique nexus of heightened interest.

For six nights last week, 30 million viewers watched the Ken Burns documentary on our national parks. Many park observers are expecting a surge of visitors as a result.

Days before the series debuted, the National Parks Second Century Commission issued its recommendations on what needs to happen to assure our national parks remains vibrant and relevant to future generations.

We have a new Park Service director in Jon Jarvis, who served as superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park from 1999 to 2001. The appointment of the 33-year veteran has been cheered by the rank and file.

Jarvis takes over as the agency prepares spending millions of dollars on new facilities, much needed maintenance and hiring more staff to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016.

It’s an odd mix of excitement, uncertainty and can-do spirit.

In April I talked with Chip Jenkins, the superintendent of the North Cascades National Park complex, about Burns’ film. Jenkins talked about the groundswell of interest the documentary could create.

“We are about to have a tsunami of public interest sweep upon us,” he said. “This gift will trigger an enormous surge in people interested in coming to visit these places and a surge in people who want to help.”

It will be hard to track any surge, but park visitation showed an increase this summer. Through September, there has been a 3.38 percent increase in recreation visits nationwide. Spurred in part by three weekends with no admission fees, Americans are rediscovering their parks. Some were visiting for the first time.

Those first-timers are the people the commission hopes to turn into the next generation of park supporters.

Throughout its report, the commission stressed the need for parks and the Park Service to reflect the diversity of America, to tell the stories and preserve the places that shaped our nation’s growth.

Sally Jewell, the president and chief executive officer of REI, served on the commission. She said it is crucial that the park service reflect the entire nation.

“We see the utilization of parks skewed toward a smaller subset of the population,” she said. “Why is that and what can we do to change that so that national parks are open and welcoming to the public?”

Jewell said Washington’s national parks already are engaging today’s citizens. She cited the education programs offered by Olympic Park Institute and North Cascade Institute. Mount Rainier, she said, ran an experimental program this summer bringing families to camp in the park for the first time.

“Every one of (the parks) has a desire to connect with the community, but when it comes to funding it, it becomes difficult to fund it consistently,” she said.

In this day and age, who will step up to become the new standard bearer for the national parks? Who will become the next John Muir, Stephen Mather or Teddy Roosevelt?

Randy King, acting superintendent at Mount Rainier, feels today’s age of instant information and misinformation makes it difficult for new champions to arise.

He used as an example the story of Mather, the first Park Service director who spent his own money to pay for staff and park development. But Mather suffered from severe depression and would disappear for months at a time. No official today could escape public scrutiny for that long, King said.

It will be hard for Jarvis to become that guiding light. He will do his best, but within the constraints of an administration that measures each word said, each action taken. In today’s political world, no matter what party is in charge, there seems little room for true innovation.

Someone, however, has to grasp the commission report and carry its message to the White House and halls of Congress, and to the people of the nation. Someone has to become the public face of the park system and introduce to tomorrow’s generations the wonders of Mount Rainier and Yellowstone, the history of the U.S.S. Arizona and Underground Railroad sites and the cultural significance of places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Ellis Island National Monument.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640