Gateway Communities: Not All Have Tight Connections With Their National Parks
Editor's note: A topic discussed in detail at America's Summit on the National Parks earlier this year was not just how to get youth into the parks, but how to attract a cross-section of youth that reflected America's diversity. In a series of stories, the Traveler is looking at the approaches different groups take to address that issue. In this, the third installment in the series, we'll look at efforts being made by Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks to get youth into those two parks.
There's no doubt that more than a few readers of the Traveler would love to call a national park gateway community their home. But sometimes, those who live in gateway towns are disconnected with that national park next door.
That's the case in Jackson, Wyoming, where Latino families and their children aren't often seen in Grand Teton National Park. But the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is working with park staff to bridge the divide through Pura Vida, a program that connects Latino students with the park.
A somewhat similar situation occurs in Moab, Utah, the gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. It's a gritty, blue-collar town that once thrived off the uranium mining industry, and which now mines tourism dollars in large part thanks to the two parks and their red-rock scenery, as well as the wide expanse of surrounding U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands that are perfect for off-roading, mountain biking, canyoneering, and hiking.
Surprisingly, perhaps, relatively few of the town's residents head to the two parks on a regular basis. Joette Langianese, executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, says out-of-town visitors to the parks easily outnumber locals. And just as some of the Latino residents of Jackson are put off by Park Service staffers in uniform, the same has been said of Navajo and Latino residents in Moab, she says.
But there are larger problems, too, that impede use of the parks by locals, according to the executive director. On one hand, there's the disconnect among the community and the parks; residents in general don't head to them to recreate. Too, efforts to connect school students with the parks and outdoors are wanting.
"We do have the Canyon Country outdoor program that’s been going on (in the schools) for a long time," said Ms. Langianese, "but it stops at sixth grade. So after sixth grade there’s no program."
In a bid to overcome these issues, the friends group works with other nonprofit organizations to take youth into the parks. All it takes, of course, is money. Or it could be something as simple as some vans to drive students into the parks several days a year.
"There’s a lot of opportunity with the resources that we already have here that do focus on multi-cultural and youth populations. So we just feel like we can expand and enhance those programs," the executive director said.
To make some of those programs blossom, the friends group offers a scholarship program to help non-profit groups afford them.
“We would be reaching out to other nonprofits that have the means and already do similar programs, but they don’t have the resources to actually make it happen," said Ms. Langianese in explaining the scholarship program. "For example, Canyonlands Field Institute, they like to do night sky programs within the park, but gauge it towards the importance of keeping the night sky preserved around the parks so that we can enjoy dark skies.
“And they don't have the resources to send one of their staff, to pay a staffer, to go give that presentation. So they could come apply to us and we would give them the funding," she continued. "It’s not a lot. We have about $10,000 that we could give away (annually). The (Moab Valley) Multicultural Center for example, they wanted to take the kids to Needles (District), but they didn’t have the vehicles to do that. So we assisted them with finding the vehicles, paying for the gas.
“So our organization is not providing the service, but we’re providing the resouces to other nonprofits to do that.”
And yet another basic problem is the cost of heading into the parks, said Ms. Langianese.
"Moab’s a poor community. We do have retirees here, and second-home owners who aren’t here all the time. But people that live here, go to school here, unless they work for a government agency, there are very few lucrative jobs here, so some people can’t afford to pay for their kids to go to the parks," she said. "So the free days in the parks are really good for the peope who go to the parks. But I would like to see those free days in the parks be focused on getting locals to the parks."
While the friends group is currently focusing its efforts on Moab and the immediate area, Ms. Langianese said she hopes to eventually be able to reach out to the Denver and Salt Lake areas.
"We’re focused on Moab just because we’re here, and the community is close to the park. But we’re also looking at San Juan County (to the south), the Four Corners School (of Outdoor Education) down there does a lot of work, we can partner with them," she said. "But we’re also looking at Denver and Salt Lake. That’s the ulimate goal, to include both of those urban areas as well.”