I don’t believe there has ever been a more pivotal time in the history of our profession, perhaps since National Park Service Director Steven Mather paid the first interpreters out of his own pocket to help protect the preserve the valley of Yosemite. Now is our time as interpreters to take the lead, and take responsibility for the future of our public lands. Now is the time when truth and facts matter more than ever. Now is the time when the preservation and protection of our public lands is in peril. Now is the time when the stories and voices of the sins of our past need to be heard. There is no more critical time than now for interpreters and the role of interpretation in our society.
Interpreters hold in their hands—you hold in your hand—the future. Interpretation is the most important job in any park, forest, or place dedicated to the stories of our past, the voices of the scientist, and the promises of the future.
It is through quality interpretation that we can protect precious fragile resources. For example, in Petrified Forest National Park an interpretive sign reduced the theft of petrified wood by almost half. Interpretation can make a difference in protecting fragile park resources and is a critical function for our parks.
It is through quality interpretation that we can introduce the next generation of stewards to our parks and public lands. Today kids between the ages of four and 14 are plugged into electronic devices for about eight hours a day and are outside in unstructured play for four to seven minutes! At the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited unit of the National Park Service, only seven to 11 percent of visitors bring children. Where are the future stewards for our public lands going to come from? There is no more important time than now for interpretation.
For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s Kids in Parks program has connected more than 450,000 children to parks. Eleven percent of the kids had never been hiking before, 52 percent came specifically to hike a Kids in Parks TRACK Trail, and more than 55 percent were first-time visitors to the park. Interpretation can introduce the next generation of park stewards.
How do I know all this? Research is the key. Research and rigorous evaluation are the keys to the future of our profession and our profession is the key to the future of our public lands, our museums, and the preservation and protection of our sacred spaces.
We can demonstrate our impact and our critical role in meeting the mission of our agencies and organizations. The survival of our profession depends on our collective will and determination to measure, document, and demonstrate our impact.
I started as a field interpreter at Hungry Mother State Park in Virginia and now serve as CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. Today my programs with visitors around a campfire have been replaced by meetings with senators, funders, and foundations to advocate for millions of dollars in additional funding and support to meet our mission. And I can tell you that data and evidence matter. Facts matter! When the grass is not cut or the bathrooms are not cleaned, it is easy for visitors, managers, and funders to see the impact of those missing services. Can you defend and measure the impact of your programs? What would visitors miss if you were not there?
Unlike the temporal impact of an unclean bathroom, the lack of connecting visitors to our parks and public lands will have generational implications. Now is our time. It is time to make it a priority to ask hard questions, to examine critically what we are doing, how we are doing it, and what the outcomes are from it. Mostly, it is your time. You can be the difference in elevating the role and importance of interpretation because the future of our parks and public lands is in your hands.