Leadership Summit: Excitement and Cheerleading, But....

National Park Foundation Leadership Summit

At the very least, there's a great deal of excitement at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit in Texas, and right behind that there's a good amount of cheerleading. But along with those two aspects, there are a few questions that beg answers.

Without question, this conference is getting the juices flowing for park advocates who have longed to see national parks take a higher profile on the nation's radar screen. Unfortunately, far and away the greatest segment of park advocates attending the invitation-only gathering are corporations and partners (along with a fair mix of National Park Service personnel and foundation representatives) with a vested interest in the parks.

Seemingly missing is a voice for the park visitor. While the National Parks Conservation Association, with President Tom Kiernan and Craig Obey, vice president of governmental affairs, is represented, that group's top priority is the health and vitality of the park system, not directly representing the visitors' on-the-ground interests.

Of course, the focus of the conference is to build more partnerships and philanthropy for the parks, and the National Park Foundation's mission is to serve as the Park Service's charitable arm, not to be a booster of park visitation.

Too, while part of the agenda called for "uniting diverse voices and perspectives," glaringly absent has been diversity in the audience. Gazing across the conference hall, those holding down the seats and speaking have been almost entirely Caucasian and mostly male. That aspect wasn't lost on two of the participants, both women of color: Gillian Bowser, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M (and Park Service employee) who holds a doctorate in wildlife biology and who spoke on diversity, and Audrey Peterman, a Jamaican by birth who lives in Atlanta, where she is president of Earthwise Productions, Inc., which strives to build "diversity in outdoor recreation and conservation."

Color in the parks, or rather its lack, also was raised by Robert Stanton, the 15th director of the National Park Service and the first African-American to hold the position. Mr. Stanton said there's a perception that different races don't know enough about public lands and outreach needs to be a continuing effort. More pressing was Ms. Bowser, who told the audience that by 2012 many U.S. states would be flip-flopping in terms of their racial makeup and the Park Service and its supporters need to take note of that change and prepare for it.

The underlying message was quite clear: If today's minorities don't fall in love with the national parks, who will tomorrow's park advocates be?

That was part of the message, albeit in a tangential way, delivered Sunday by John Compton, a professor from Texas A&M who specializes in tourism sciences. His noted that current user satisfaction surveys of park visitors are meaningless because they don't measure the success of the NPS in terms of the agency's impact on the nation. The park system, said Mr. Compton, need a wider base of support, and need greater off-site benefits for the country. Somehow, he said, it must be demonstrated to the American public that the national parks provide a necessary service for the entire country, not just those who visit parks.

"What people do not understand, they will not value," the professor said.