And once these students arrive, they provide them opportunities to engage in this unique environment in their backyard. Many of these kids are growing up in urban settings, and they’ve never seen an alligator. They’ve never seen that type of environment and those ecosystems. And they get an up-close-and-personal opportunity to go slog through the swamp. They call it a “slough slog”: Walking through the swamp where there could be alligators right around them. These kinds of unique experiences coupled with a facilitation of science learning and an introduction to the concepts of ecosystems and how they function — that combination of story, experience, and learning — is what they bring together really well.
Q: You’ve spent a lot of time studying how people respond to these experiences. What have you found?
POWELL: The programmatic approaches that seem to work best are those that provide a holistic story, where you focus on what’s unique and compelling about that location, but it is also relevant to that individual’s life in some way.
For example, if you’re in the Everglades and you’re talking about the water cycle, you can introduce how drinking water or the health of Florida Bay is linked to things they do at home. It’s relevant to their lives. It also provides them an opportunity to explore in a way that is far more emotional, but also examines the beauty of the place, why it’s unique, why it’s special. It helps them develop a connection to that place and provides and facilitates opportunities for people to reflect on those experiences and to talk with each about that. Often learning is a social undertaking, and talking with friends and your teachers and mentors and parents is an important part of the process.
Less effective strategies tend to be more knowledge-based where you’re focused on trying to convey certain facts about a particular place, rather than tying this information to a full story.
Q: You talk about the power of experience shaping a young person’s life. Did that happen to you?
POWELL: There wasn’t one particular experience. I certainly participated in family vacations similar to the Griswolds in “National Lampoons Vacation,” where we loaded up the car and went to a national park and camped. But there were also the experiences of my later teens, when friends and I would go backpacking together — learning how to camp, even failing at times. All of those experiences coupled together left an impression.
Another important moment happened when I was in college. As an undergraduate I had a zoology professor that was particularly influential. The course was focused on animal behaviors, and we had great field classes. The professor was really passionate about what he did. He also shared with me some employment and internship opportunities. He helped me become an intern at Yellowstone National Park, as a wilderness ranger, and that was when it really started.
Q: What have you come to see as the greatest value of this and other public lands?
POWELL: I see public lands as being invaluable to the American people. We can talk about it academically, from an ecosystem services perspective, or from the standpoint of the intrinsic value of biodiversity in and of its own right. But I definitely focus on, and have more of a bias toward, seeing it for its recreational value, its health benefits, its benefits to individuals in understanding the world around them, and the opportunity to make a spiritual connection to place. These public lands and that tradition we have in the U.S. — and the opportunity for recreation in these places — have often been the entry point for an environmental ethic. So without public lands and that tradition, I think we would be a much poorer country….
This tradition in a way started here in the U.S. and it’s been a legacy that’s been really important globally. This idea of parks and protected areas, while it might not be done in exactly the same way as here in the U.S., is certainly being mimicked in other countries around the world. And the number of protected areas is growing. In large part, as we urbanize, I think the importance of having these places for our wellbeing is critical. Way back in 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted really saw that these natural places were instrumental to human health and wellbeing, and I truly believe that it still applies today.
Q: You mention that the idea of public lands has spread internationally: What role do you play in developing such places in other nations?
POWELL: I’ve had the opportunity to work in a couple of different areas — in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Vietnam — developing plans for national parks and protected areas. In particular I have focused on how you balance tourism development with resource protection, while also providing opportunities for local people to participate and benefit from that economy.
So how do you do it? How do you balance resource protection and development? That’s been a focus of mine for a number of years. It’s a big challenge because each context is unique. But there are ways to accomplish this balance. Often in these international contexts the motivation from a governmental standpoint is not only biodiversity and land protection but also rural economic development. How you balance those challenges is the million-dollar question.
Q: How did the work you did at F&ES shape your career?
POWELL: My F&ES experience was phenomenal. For one, I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues, the other master’s students. The sharing of information among students was fantastic. When I returned to school, I was 38 years old, and I had been working in the ecotourism industry for about 20 years. I was really interested in taking those practical experiences and learning how we might do ecotourism better. To deliver both economic benefits but also protect the natural environment.