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The Value of a Backward Glance

By Brenda Barrett September 30, 2013
Credit: NPS

Yellowstone National Park Fires 1988. Photo: NPS

I came upon the Retro Report while doing a little review of news stories on the ups and downs of federal fire policy. Launched this year (2013) as a nonprofit news organization, the Retro Report revisits headline stories from the past from the perspective of today. Their mission statement notes that: “With journalistic success increasingly measured in page views, retweets and Facebook likes, there is dwindling interest or ability among news organizations to follow up on the stories they cover. Complicating matters, the first draft of history can be wrong. When news organizations fail to invest the time and money required to correct the record or provide context around what really happened, myth can replace truth. The results are policy decisions and cultural trends built on error, misunderstanding or flat-out lies.”

This is strong stuff and the report has already produced multiple attention grabbing stories from the past in a 10 to 20 minute video format. It interviews the experts, reviews outcomes and changes in national policy, and looks at the long-term consequences. “Summer of Fire” follows the story and the aftermath of the massive fires in Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1988. It is not quite as riveting as some of the Retro Reports work on social issues, but it does a good job of contrasting the alarmist news coverage at the time with the calm iteration of National Park’s policy by then Superintendent Bob Barbee among others. Also, it tracks the head snapping change in tone as  news reporters marveled at nature’s regenerative power the next spring.

Recent events have reinforced the fact that that the role of fire in creating our landscape is still not well understood. Wildfires and fire management are certainly not something that can be condensed into a nightly news headline. So congratulations to the Retro Report – the nation deserves more of this kind of thoughtful coverage.

It also got me to thinking. With the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) on the horizon, how can we share more stories on the complexity of caring for our cultural landscapes and treasured protected areas with the people that pay the tab? The George Wright Society has done an in depth job of examining the issues facing the NPS in their Centennial Essay.  How can we take some of these important ideas and air them on a larger stage? Interpreting climate change in parks, the difficulty of engaging audiences that look like America, the role of communities and public lands, and the agency’s changing philosophy on park management, all could be gist for a Retro Report type of analysis.

Clearly, there is a public appetite for going beyond simple celebratory sound bites…we need to help set that table.

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