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Interview with Rolf Diamant

Rolf Diamant is adjunct associate professor in the Department of History, University of Vermont, and is a board member and recent chair of Vermont Humanities.  In his former career with the National Park Service, Rolf directed Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, both of which address conservation history and the creation of the national park system.  His column on the place of national parks in American society regularly appears in the journal Parks Stewardship Forum (https://escholarship.org/uc/psf) by the University of California and the George Wright Society.  Rolf  is co-editor and contributing author of A Thinking Person’s Guide To America’s National Parks; his newest book Olmsted And Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, And The National Park Idea is due out in late 2021. Conducted over email, this interview highlights the history and value of the GWS biennial conferences.

1) Based on your experience in the National Park Service, can you share how colleagues share research and best practices across the agency?

This is an interesting question. On one hand we’ve seen how virtual programs & zoom type events can in many cases broaden opportunities for learning and exchange. It is hard to argue with the convenience, low-cost and flexibility of this technology.  However, by not meeting occasionally in person, you are also passing on opportunities to meet and get to know other people with similar interests and informally build collegial networks. Large organizations like NPS really benefit from this networking and from problem solving based on personal relationships with people scattered across the system.   

 2) What role does a meeting like GWS play in building knowledge and relationships in the NPS, but also other federal agencies and academia too? How was it different from typical exchanges in the agency?

Well, typical exchanges in the agency usually do not include reps not only from other federal agencies and academia, also miss the input from NGOs and international organizations. That was another strength of GWS meetings – international participation.  I remember Tim Badman (IUCN-World Heritage Coordinator) once telling us that he always tried to make the GWS meetings because as he could only get to the US infrequently, it was the one single event anywhere in the US where he could connect with the very latest in park & conservation thinking and practice – all under one roof. 

 3) How was GWS different from a typical academic conference? 

The program was not only broadly interdisciplinary but engaged an interesting mix of academics and practitioners presenting on both theory and practice. These were not two separate worlds (the agency and the academy) coming together for a meeting, rather, the program was largely made up with presentations and panels that referenced university projects being undertaken in parks and in partnership with park staff.  There were other benefits — including NPS talent scouting for faculty and grad students for future projects or even agency recruitment.

The other related difference was that GWS meetings (by definition, given the size of NPS participation) were heavily oriented towards applied project work with less emphasis on siloed academic research. As result the GW program was much more interactive, participatory and relaxed than more traditional professional or academic gatherings. 

4) Can you describe a moment or memory from a GWS meeting that stands out? 

It is not one moment that stands out but the number of occasions that as a park superintendent I always tried to bring a cadre of younger staff people with me to GWS meetings to orient them to the larger park connected ecosystem of people doing important work that we could all learn from.  The networking opportunities were huge. It was also an opportunity for my colleagues to present their work, sometimes for the first time.    

5) Please share any ideas for a GWS style meeting, exchange mechanism, etc moving forward?

If it was up to me, I would restart the large GWS meetings again post-COVID. But that may be a world that is not coming back, so it has been suggested having a number of smaller regionally based meetings as perhaps an acceptable alternative. 

Regardless of meeting size, there needs to be some recognition on the part of NPS leadership of the value of this kind of mixed professional interaction and relationship building. I sense declining interest and participation in GWS by NPS leaders. The agency is perhaps now more than ever heavily focused on individual park operations as intellectual bandwidth is constricted.

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