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A Summit on National Parks: A New Landscape for the Next Hundred Years

The America’s Summit on National Parks in Washington DC (January 24-26, 2012) was in the tradition of past large convocations to set the future direction for the National Park Service such as The Vail Agenda (1991), Discovery 2000 (St. Louis) and Joint Ventures (Los Angeles 2003), but with a key difference. The event was convened by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation and the National Park Hospitality Association and, of the 300 invitees to the summit, only 44 were employees of the National Park Service. The summit’s big idea was to use the agency’s centennial in 2016 to power the national parks’ second century. The National Park Service’s Call to Action (released August 25, 2011) framed most of the sessions of the two-day event.

Working on a landscape scale was very much in the foreground. Although the two sessions on Connecting and Conserving Landscapes were billed as cultural and as natural, the speakers blended both ideas and focused on the need to collaborate to conserve resources. The session, The Next Generation of America’s Parks: New Models and Opportunities, tackled another theme of the summit: How to expand the national park system to reflect the diversity of our cultural and natural heritage? While these sessions were based on two of the actions steps identified in the Call to Action report (See Action #1 Fill in the Blanks and Action #22 Scaling Up), the panelists took the ideas one step further. They spoke with an authentic partnership voice on the opportunities and frankly the difficulties of working with the National Park Service. They made real world recommendations that the agency must make if it wants to work on a larger scale and be ready for the next 100 years.

In his opening remarks, Secretary Salazar noted that only 3% of park units represent diverse communities and called for new thinking to broaden the agency’s base of support. Panelists at the break out sessions wondered why – if landscape scale projects and diverse perspectives are so important to the National Park Service – do national heritage areas, trails, and wild and scenic rivers receive so little funding. Tribal and other community partners also said they wanted to work with the parks, but were frustrated by the process. The Call to Action has its work cut out to address many of these issues.

In other observations, the summit’s many plenary sessions were packed, generating a stream of ideas from political, corporate, nonprofit leaders that this observer would analogize to “drinking from a fire hose.” It was clear that the summit planners subscribed to the maxim that if you want people to remember you then invite them to your party. Re-occurring themes were the importance of paying attention to youth and new audiences, but also the enduring value of the National Park Service as a brand.

 So what are the next steps?

All summit attendees were provided with a draft document “National Parks for a New Century: Statement of Joint Principles,” which as critiqued at the closing session for being too focused on park units and not representative of the many partnerships represented at the event. As a good first step, the summit planners have now revised the Statement of Joint Principles to be more inclusive and are actively seeking organizations to sign on as supporter. For more information on the summit speakers, sessions and notes on the highlights, visit the summit’s web site Taking Action.