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The Value of the George Wright Society Conference

By Eleanor Mahoney March 4, 2021

Over the past year, parks and other protected areas have served as sites of dialogue, research, and rejuvenation. But how do we ensure that these landscapes, which vary tremendously in their scale and their approaches to resource management, remain connected to one another? What mechanisms can be put in place to facilitate knowledge exchange among staff, partners, and volunteers? And how can we continue to bridge the artificial divides of science / humanities and nature / culture that (still) remain so pervasive? 

One place to looks for ideas on how best to foster crosscutting interchange is the George Wright Society (GWS). For 35 years (1982 – 2017), the GWS sponsored a biennial meeting that explicitly sought to bridge institutional and scholarly divisions. Named for George Meléndez Wright, the first chief of the National Park Service’s wildlife division, the GWS promotes protected area stewardship by bringing practitioners together to share their expertise. As David Harmon, the Society’s Executive Director, explained to me over email, “We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States. The GWS conferences modeled a kind of discourse — collegial, stimulating, and, yes, fun! — that really does bridge divides.” 

We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States.

David Harmon

In 2015, I had the chance to take part in the GWS biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites in Oakland, California. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation on the politics of National Park creation after World War II and came hoping for some inspiration. At my panel, a number of the attendees had worked for the National Park Service (NPS) during the postwar period and generously shared their firsthand knowledge of events chronicled in my study. In addition, they and others present discussed how my findings might impact future NPS decision-making. There was a general openness to new ideas and a lack of pretension. It was an excellent meeting and I was already looking forward to future gatherings.

Unfortunately, the GWS conferences have been on hold since 2017. According to Harmon, the conference was negatively impacted by changes to federal government travel rules. After the media reported on a few extreme examples of employee misconduct at conferences (in no way linked to the GWS), scrutiny over all travel costs increased. It became almost impossible to plan any event with a large federal presence. Review by some departments became so onerous that approval or rejection of travel might only have occurred ten days before a meeting. Even with these challenges, the GWS still hopes to re-start its meetings, but much depends on how the federal government manages its travel programs in the future.

Origins of the GWS Conference Idea

The origins of the George Wright Society conference are quite interesting. Harmon told me that the roots actually go back to the late 1970s. During that period, two NPS scientists, Robert M. Linn and Theodore W. Sudia, helped organize two agency-wide science conferences. Both men also served as the chief scientist of the NPS and were among the co-founders of the GWS. The meetings proved valuable, and Linn and Sudia hoped to expand them. “They recognized the need for a mechanism of sustained information exchange to support better research and management, not just in terms of science, and not just in terms of US national parks, but across disciplines and for all kinds of parks, protected areas, and cultural sites,” Harmon noted.  “This was their key insight, and it became what sets GWS apart: the need to bring together people from different perspectives, from different disciplines, for the common purpose of conserving and protecting important place-based cultural and natural heritage.”

Building on those initial NPS-wide science conferences, while also expanding to include interdisciplinary perspectives, the first GWS meeting took place in 1982. This was only a few years after the organization’s founding in 1980. It took a little bit of time, but, by the 1990s, the GWS conferences had become one of the premier opportunities for protected area managers from across the U.S. – and indeed, the world – to gather and learn from one another. Rolf Diamant, who served as the superintendent of multiple NPS units and as a past president of the GWS board, emphasized the international significance of the meeting to me in an interview. He recalled that Tim Badman, Director of the Nature-Culture Initiative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 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.”  

Want to know more about the George Wright Society Conference? Read our interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant.

As the conference matured, the GWS also sought to expand its reach and purpose. The organization, Harmon stressed, mounted sustained outreach to Native peoples through an Indigenous Involvement Working Group, “a Native-led group that had direct input into the conference program at the highest levels.” An Indigenous Participant Travel Grant Program, primarily funded through NPS donations, helped support this endeavor. In addition, a parallel program for students of color and other under-represented groups, the George Meléndez Wright Student Travel Scholarship, also took shape. Significantly, despite the conference hiatus, the Indigenous Involvement Working Group is still working on a number of projects.

The Value of the GWS Conference 

For agencies like the NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in-person interaction is essential, yet also limited. Geography is one challenge, but so too are intra- and inter- agency institutional silos. Exchange with academics, whose research often touches directly on protected area management, also remains uneven across programs and bureaus. This is why the George Wright Society conferences were so vital.

The meetings brought diverse groups of people together, to share ideas, experiences, and perspectives in often unscripted and creative ways. As Diamant put it, the meetings “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.”

Dr. Stephanie Toothman, who served as the National Park Service Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Partnerships, and Science, also commented on the uniquely interdisciplinary nature of the conference. She served for seven years on the GWS board and supported the events as NPS Associate Director. “The conferences were very valuable in providing an inter-disciplinary forum to discuss issues of common interest from climate change to cultural landscapes and wilderness…the latter three topics were repeated over and over again. There was nothing like it and there still isn’t,” she told me. Toothman also commented on the importance of the GWS as a venue for practitioners in the NPS to share their research with colleagues inside and outside the agency. “Another value is that the conference provided opportunities for resource staff in the field to present without the peer review of journals.  So the conferences presented a lot more hands-on research than your standard professional conference.”

Looking Ahead – What Do you Think?

What does the future hold? Ideally, the Society would re-start its meetings as soon as possible, but given the pandemic, as well as the ongoing uncertainties of federal government funding, that appears unlikely – at least in the near term. Also, the climate impacts of air travel, especially, must be considered as we plan for events in the future.

The past year has demonstrated the value and malleability of virtual gatherings (webinars, conferences) but also their limitations. Great, even amazing, content is available, but interaction, especially spontaneous exchange, is limited. Rather than chatting with the person sitting next to you, we are often just a number on the bottom of a screen during a Zoom meeting, sending our questions anonymously to a moderator. The ability to form lasting connections just is not there for the most part. Mentoring opportunities are also limited. As Diamant noted, “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.”   

Going forward, smaller, hybrid meetings may be an option – one I would love to see. Attendees in a local area might come together, with others able to attend virtually. Maybe a version of “speed networking” will launch virtually as well, which might aid in meeting new people, especially across experience, age, and background. Equity needs to be built into all gatherings from the ground up too. Virtual meetings allow those who might not have access to travel funds or the professional flexibility to travel to take part in important conversations – whether presenting information or asking important questions of those speaking. Accessibility must also be considered and prioritized from the beginning when planning any virtual or in-person meetings – and there is much to do to improve accessibility in both cases.

No matter what, we need more, much more, of the type of crosscutting conversations that took place at GWS conferences. With new leadership in federal land management, preservation, and humanities agencies, 2021 may offer a chance to re-new and build upon these types of gatherings. 

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To learn more, read interviews with David Harmon and Rolf Diamant. The LLO thanks Harmon, Diamant, and Dr. Stephanie Toothman for sharing their insights into the history of the GWS conference program.


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