As a former park ranger who is married to another park ranger and still lives and socializes within the park ranger community, I was particularly dismayed by a series of articles I read recently in USA Today
regarding kids and parks. The articles suggest that national parks may not be as relevant to today's kids and teens as they were for their parents (and grandparents.) If that's the case, does this mean bad news for the future protection of this country's national park system?
According to the articles, kids today spend more time indoors and connected to gadgets than previous generations. Of course, our grandparents didn't have iPads and Kindle Fires, so it's not really a fair comparison. But the point is that the average age of the typical national park visitor is rising, meaning that when kids aren't connected to gadgets, they still aren't getting out and about in their local parks. And that means that they may not be falling in love with them like their grandparents did. So when those kids hit voting age, will they care if their tax dollars are used to protect wildlife and wilderness that they've never even seen, let alone felt a connection to?
The numbers speak for themselves. A recent U.S. Forest Service report indicated that the average age of a visitor to Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area was 26 in 1969, 36 in 1991 and 45 in 2007. Similar numbers exist for many other parks and forests. The same people keep coming back year after year, even as they continue to age, because they visited the area when they were young and wanted to return. But that kind of connection isn't happening for today's kids.
Park service officials have seen these numbers too. The agency has apparently made it a priority to get kids back into parks from now until its 2016 centennial. How? Some parks are changing the types of merchandise that they have for purchase in gift stores and even the type and volume of music in visitor centers and other buildings. Others are offering new, edgier programs, like the "flashlight-free" night hikes at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that are designed to attract a younger crowd. Still others are turning to the competition — tech gadgets — to draw kids in via smartphone apps and mobile videos.
Will it work? Can the National Park System regain its relevancy with the next generation of park stewards?