The visitor center has been a mainstay of national parks for half a century, but as budgets shrink and digital information expands, the National Park Service is rethinking the size and scope of such facilities.
Speaking to a group of architecture students in April, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis questioned whether visitor centers in their current incarnation are the best way to connect visitors with the nation's 394 parks.
"Many people -- and not just those under 30 -- plan their visits online, using the National Park Service's website and other sources to find interactive maps, watch videos of the trails they will hike, listen to podcasts about the wildlife they will encounter and study online exhibits on the history of the place," Jarvis said during a lecture at University of Virginia's School of Architecture.
The visitor center as it is known today was born in the 1950s. After World War II, the number of park visitors grew exponentially, enabled by the new federal highway system and widespread automobile ownership. To respond to the demand, the parks dramatically expanded visitor services leading up to the 50th anniversary of the system in 1966, a program known as "Mission 66."
At that time, visitor centers were viewed as vital gateways to the park, providing the first point of contact and information about where to go and what to do there, Jarvis said. Today, visitors access much of that same information long before they set foot in the park via the Internet.
There is also the stark reality that the Park Service's budget may not allow for new infrastructure in the future. The Interior Department imposed a construction moratorium for fiscal 2012, and NPS slashed its construction budget by $73 million. No agency-led projects are slated for the next five years, though a handful of visitor centers will be completed because they are funded by outside groups.
"The demands on our federal budget are many, so the likelihood of an ambitious national park building program are dim, especially in light of our now $10 billion maintenance backlog," Jarvis said.
Agency officials overseeing park education and interpretation agree that the role of the visitor center is changing in the 21st century and that is not a bad thing.
"The traditional style of a big building where you walk in and there are static exhibits that never change, and there's a slide show or film that doesn't change, is really not effective for today's audiences," said Julia Washburn, the agency's associate director for interpretation and education.
Today's visitors often come in inter-generational groups and do not want a list of facts, which they can print out at home. Rather they want choices in how they learn about a park, how they interact with park officials and other visitors, and then draw their own meanings from exhibits and other park resources, Washburn said.
"People don't want to be talked at anymore," she said. "They want to be engaged in discussion and in activities and they want to talk to each other and learn from each other."
Computers, smart phones, tablets and other digital technologies have increasingly enabled the Park Service to offer such interactive, customized learning experiences aimed at different age groups. Such portable devices also eliminate the need for large physical displays, and they can be carried throughout the park.
Washburn envisions a day when visitors armed with smart phones will stop a small kiosk at a wayside station, scan a barcode and listen to a podcast about the site, look at photos, watch a movie or even play a game that helps them understand the significance of a park resource or historical event.
For example, at a roadside station along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, a visitor could use his or her smart phone or tablet to scan a barcode and watch a short film of Civil Rights activists who participated in the march talking about the experience that occurred in that very spot.
"We no longer need these big, monolithic structures to provide really interactive, interpretive media," Washburn said. "You're holding it in your hands now."
However, that does not mean physical buildings will go away completely. Space is still needed to provide NPS staff with housing and offices, staging areas and classrooms for school groups, and other amenities such as bookstores and bathroom facilities, Washburn said.
Also, some national park sites still require a more traditional visitor center, especially Civil War battlefields. Washburn noted that it is hard for visitors to understand the significance of a battlefield site when standing in the middle of what is now farmland. Visual aids in a visitor center can help recreate what happened at a site hundreds of years ago.
No replacement for the real thing
NPS officials also stressed that emerging digital technologies should not replace the personal interactions between visitors and the parks, including with rangers, human interpreters and other visitors.
"The technology should help people have an enhanced, deeper, more meaningful connection with the real thing," Washburn said.
Indeed, people still seek out rangers at parks they do not regularly visit. After pre-trip planning information was posted online for Yellowstone National Park, rangers expected a drop in visitor center activity, said Diane Chalfant, the agency's deputy associate director of interpretation and education.
"But what actually happened is the visitors came in more informed and curious because they had more in-depth questions to ask," said Chalfant, who was Yellowstone's chief of interpretation for 10 years.
The role of ranger is changing from providing basic facts and directions to discussing more detailed elements of the park. It means they have to know their subject matter in and out, Chalfant said.
And there is the simple fact that people like to talk to other people, and visitor centers provide the space for people to do that.
"Visitors will stand in line in the visitor center for five, 10, 15 minutes, and they finally get to the information desk and they ask the ranger something like, 'Does it ever get this warm around here?'" Chalfant said. "Their purpose of interacting was not to get information but to have an interaction."
And while digital technology is great for providing information, Chalfant said it is not always the best way to convey the full meaning or significance of a national park.
"With interpretation and education, we are investing in building stewards of the park," Chalfant said. "By providing exhibits and publications and films, we're hoping the visitors over time will develop a desire to protect and support the park. It's a really important long-term function."