Op-Ed: Protecting America’s Parks

This spring, after nearly 10 years of thinking, talking, searching and hoping, a dream came true for many of us who spent our careers working in national parks. On March 3, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks announced the establishment of the Park Institute of America in collaboration with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. The institute evolved from the interest and commitment of the nearly 1,200 volunteers who have been employed by the National Park Service and deeply understand the value of parks.

The membership of the coalition, founded in 2003, represents more than 30,000 years of stewardship and “voices of experience.” Included among its members are former directors, deputy directors, regional directors and hundreds of superintendents and individuals who managed various aspects of park operations and programs.

Why the institute? Why now? Poll after poll shows that this country loves its parks and protected areas, but does the public really understand their value, their contributions to our quality of life and the threats to their survival? There are numerous issues and challenges for the Park Institute of America to address: climate change, invasive species, pollution and other long-term environmental threats, pressures on public lands and resources, the need for large landscape conservation, and the loss of our nation’s “historic literacy,” among others. And all of this coming at a time when resources to manage these lands and places are shrinking and the country is becoming increasingly diversified. A diversified nation must connect with these special resources if those resources are to survive.

Parks and protected areas are also bellwethers, laboratories and classrooms — effective learning environments. Consider climate change. Rising temperatures melt glaciers, alter ecosystems on which wildlife depends, affecting, for example, biodiversity in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It will also cause sea-level rise that threatens historic, cultural and recreational resources. The impact of rising sea levels at Cape Hatteras National Seashore will require difficult decisions to be made on beach nourishment and the location of facilities. Parks and protected areas in addition serve as buffers to protect coastal areas from sea-level rise and severe storms, and can help sequester carbon, which is a major contributor to warming.

There is also much concern about the loss of our nation’s “historic literacy” — our children are not well-grounded in the country’s history. What better places to recapture this than through place-based learning using our parks and protected areas? And, while these areas are there for enjoyment and pleasure, we have much to learn and teach about the many economic and environmental benefits that flow from them.

The Park Institute of America, while located at Duke University, will be an independent nonprofit . Its location in Durham will allow the leveraging of the university’s leadership in environmental research and education circles. The institute will join the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the Organization for Tropical Studies as leading independent nonprofit conservation organizations. The university’s location in the diverse Research Triangle region of North Carolina will afford timely opportunities for educational outreach to students traditionally underrepresented in the environmental field.

The goal of the Park Institute of America is to widely disseminate information about the immense value and contributions of parks, large landscapes, historic sites and districts, heritage areas and similar lands. There is much excellent work being carried out by organizations throughout the country, but it is not widely shared and it is not reaching enough people. The institute will attempt to remedy this by partnering with a variety of educational outlets, training individuals, holding conferences, issuing white papers on policies for parks and protected areas, sharing best management practices, engaging diverse speakers and promoting access to parks in a sustainable manner.

It plans as well to harness new communication technologies, including social media, to share the latest policy and scientific findings. Transformational training will be a major focus — preparing professionals for a challenging future.

The institute will be governed by a board of directors, representing diverse interests and backgrounds — business, academia, communication, conservation, social media and philanthropy. They will be responsible for strategic oversight and fundraising. An advisory board, comprised of practitioners, scholars and partners, will identify critical priorities and help establish a shared agenda for the institute.

So, what makes this institute unique? What niche does it hope to fill? It will emphasize communication, partnerships, nonpartisanship and independence. It will be a catalyst for constructive and productive dialogue. It will analyze good ideas, come up with solutions to vexing problems and spread them widely. Its audience will be wide, as will its network of partners. Its products will produce measurable outcomes. And, by having the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks as a full partner, the institute will bring the resources of thousands of years of “hands-on” National Park Service experience to the table. Former Park Service employees will serve as mentors, teachers, researchers and writers in support of the institute. They can provide learning through case studies and assist with program evaluations, pilot projects and “lessons learned.” There is no other institute in the country that can make this claim.

The overriding goal: to elevate the conversation, increase awareness and outreach, and provide a network to enhance education and dialogue about these special places. Its audience will be professionals, practitioners and the public. We believe it is an idea whose time has come and are very excited about its home and future. We have a lot of important work ahead of us, and we need to get started.

Maureen Finnerty

Published in The Greensboro News and Record – 5/14/2016



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This page last modified: May 17, 2016 @ 9:59 am