NPS centennial aims to attract millennials, raise big money

By Corbin Hiar | 04/16/2015 01:02 PM EDT

In 1953, an influential magazine piece lamented that national parks were beginning to "go to hell" from a lack of maintenance and reluctantly called for closing many of the most popular sites.

That Harper’s essay is credited with helping launch "Mission 66," the last major campaign to restore the park system, which was timed to coincide with the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary.

Nearly half a century later, the service is still dogged by maintenance issues and budgets that supporters believe are inadequate to address them.

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But it is also facing a new challenge: the need to connect with millennials — a generation of potential visitors who are more comfortable in front of a screen than a sweeping vista.

To address these twin challenges, NPS this month launched a pair of landmark campaigns to promote its centennial celebration next year and to lay the groundwork for the service’s next 100 years.

One effort will use social media, interactive kiosks and other digital tools to attract a more diverse range of visitors to parks. That awareness campaign will be funded by large corporate sponsors and be led by a major New York advertising agency.

The other push will be an unprecedented fundraising drive. It will include a specific list of projects donors can give to. It also will feature local events such as biological surveys or 100-mile hikes and bike rides, playing on the centennial theme.

The focus of the joint effort is "raising awareness and ultimately raising the kind of support that public lands need at every level — from the city to the county to the state to the nation," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a recent phone interview. "We know that our users of national parks and public lands typically start with a local city park or a county park or a state park."

She added, "The way you support these important places is by having citizens who care."

Connecting digital natives with public lands

The most visible component of the centennial effort is an awareness campaign encouraging Americans and international visitors to "Find Your Park." A website and social media campaign of the same name are attempting to connect the tech-savvy millenial generation to public lands.

As part of the first phase of the two-year-long campaign, Jewell was in New York City’s Times Square on April 2 to unveil the Find Your Park Virtual View kiosks. The screens allowed New Yorkers to speak with visitors or park rangers at similar kiosks in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco — three parks that show the service’s full range of offline offerings.

The Virtual View kiosks were then shipped to Los Angeles last week and will arrive in Washington, D.C., today.

"Young people are spending 56 hours a week in front of a screen in contrast to only 30 minutes a week playing outdoors," Jewell said. "So if screens are where they’re spending their time, using screens to inspire them to actually get outdoors and play is what this is all about."

The awareness campaign is something of a digital-first reimagining of the "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" radio and television jingle that NPS co-opted to promote public lands during its Mission 66 effort, according to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis.

The ad was an invitation for returning World War II veterans "to come see their country and reconnect," he said in an interview earlier this month. "They came in droves and they brought their kids, and those kids were sitting in the back seat of station wagons."

That postwar baby boomer "generation has been the base of the National Park Service’s support ever since," Jarvis said.

But with the boomers fading, Jarvis in 2010 approached the National Park Foundation (NPF), a charity chartered by Congress to support NPS, to begin discussing how the service could connect with a new generation of supporters.

NPF underwrote the initial cost of the effort. To run the awareness campaign, in 2012 it hired Grey NY, an advertising and communications agency that has run similar campaigns for New York City, the Whitney Museum of American Art and States United to Prevent Gun Violence.

The ad agency then undertook a year’s worth of research on who is and isn’t coming to parks and how to attract new visitors without alienating the park system’s existing visitor base. The Find Your Park campaign is informed by Grey’s findings and will be measured against the base lines its research set, Wenk said.

NPF has brought in big-name corporate sponsors like American Express, Budweiser and Disney to bankroll the next two years of the promotional push.

No direct taxpayer dollars will be spent on the awareness campaign, Jarvis said.

Dan Wenk, the interim president of NPF and superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, repeatedly declined to say how much money the foundation planned to commit to the effort.

"I don’t know what it will be in total," Wenk said in an interview last week. But, he added, "it will be worth far more than we will ever spend on a campaign if we can reconnect people with their national parks."

The diversity of visitors in the coming years is more important to Jarvis than their combined total, he said. NPS, he noted, is already coming off a year in which it welcomed a record number of people to its parks (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

"Let me just say really clearly that the goal isn’t just increased visitation," he said. "We hosted 292 million visitors last year. That’s just slightly less than the population of the United States. Our goal isn’t to try to rocket that up."

Jarvis added, "What we’re interested in is increasing the demographic mix of that visitation — that it is more representative of the country than it currently is. We’re looking to move that needle."

Largest capital campaign ‘foundation has ever run’

The second component of the centennial effort is a fundraising push.

Still in the quiet phase of its capital campaign, NPF has not announced exactly how much it hopes to raise between now and the end of 2016.

But its goal is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Wenk. That would be well more than double the nearly $42.3 million it raised in contributions and grants from 2010 through 2013, according to NPF tax filings.

"It’s the largest capital campaign that this foundation has ever run," Jarvis said. The money it raises will "be used for grants and projects and programs across the system."

One of the main ways NPF is enticing people, corporations and other foundations to contribute is by creating a list of 100 specific projects in need of funding.

Selected with input from individual parks, the projects are broadly divided into three categories: protecting land and habitat, connecting people to parks, and creating new supporters of public lands. For example, supporters could direct their contributions toward acquiring property adjacent to Redwood National Park, providing transportation for children to visit parks and hiring a group of field-based 17-to-25-year-old geoscience interns.

"We’ll be able to match [donors] up with a project in a park area that they have a particular affinity for," Wenk said.

The next steps for the centennial effort include "a lot of one hundreds: bike a hundred miles, kayak a hundred miles, hike a hundred hikes or whatever. There will be a lot of that kind of thing and a lot of it will be queuing up on the website," Jarvis said. "What we want to do is activate people relatively locally so that you go to the website. It’s geo-referenced, you’ll be able to see where you are, the parks around you and the events associated with it, so it invites you to participate in that."

One example Jarvis disclosed was a 24-hour biological survey of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that is planned for May. The event is intended to give scientists a complete snapshot of the park’s biological inventory.

"We’ve done a dozen or so of these now, and we have yet to not find a new species. In some cases, we’ve found new species to science," he said, referring to a 2010 "bio blitz" of Biscayne National Park that discovered a new type of microorganism referred to as a water bear. "What’s really cool about that is that these species are being discovered by just average citizens."

Next year, Jarvis said NPS plans to hold a nationwide series of one-day bio blitzes, as the surveys are referred to.

That massive effort could give NPS "this base line, which is a fantastic thing to have when you’re looking at the potential impacts of climate change," he added. "We could go back and replicate that same survey 10 years, 50 years, a hundred years from now."

The idea is that by staging events early and often in 2015, "hopefully you get a lot of attention going into ’16, recognize that ’16 is an election year," Jarvis said.

Asked whether he would like the park system to be a national issue again, as it was when Harper’s proposed temporarily shuttering some parks, Jarvis said, "I’d rather not, frankly."

After a moment’s reflection, however, he reconsidered. Jarvis said he certainly wouldn’t mind if "all of the candidates were arguing over who would be the best president to manage America’s best idea, the national parks."

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