From River Guide to Academia, Exploring Nature’s Power to Inspire
After spending nearly two decades introducing travelers to some of the world’s most beautiful places, Robert Powell came to Yale to study how tourism and other informal educational experiences can inspire people to connect with — and protect — the natural world.
By Kevin Dennehy
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
You might say Robert Powell’s career in academia was launched on a beach in Fiji.
Before coming to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he earned a master’s degree and his Ph.D., Powell spent nearly two decades working in the ecotourism sector in some of the world’s most beautiful places, from Colorado to Nepal.
Now a professor at Clemson University, Powell back then led whitewater rafting and sea kayaking tours, and ran a few outdoor adventure companies. During that time he observed many cases in which tourism helped to strengthen local economies and protect ecosystems — and cases in which it did not. In Fiji, he saw how a careful tourism economy provided a valuable boost for communities hurt by damage to the region’s coral reefs.
Robert Powell ’01 M.E.M. ’05 Ph.D.
George B. Hartzog, Jr. Endowed Professor
Director, Institute for Parks
Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management
Department Forestry and Environmental Conservation
“The reefs had bleached out and the local people were really suffering,” he recalls. “They used the fish caught on the reef for their protein. But they just didn’t have enough food, particularly protein. And tourism was filling the gap on these outer islands.”
Powell is the George B. Hartzog, Jr. Endowed Professor at Clemson University, where he studies how ecotourism can promote conservation and protect the interests of local communities and how tourism and other informal educational experiences can transform human impressions of the natural world.
During a recent Yale visit, he discussed how ecotourism, if done well, can call attention to the importance of protecting our natural places — and can transform the lives of young people.
Q: What do you study?
ROBERT POWELL: I have two areas of research. One is focused on informal environmental education, primarily in national park and ecotourism natural settings. And what I mean by “informal education” is education that is meant to enhance the experience of visiting a national park or participating in a nature tour. My focus is on educational experiences that take place in a “free-choice” environment — or, that occur during someone’s leisure time and in which they can leave if they’re bored. In other words, when you’re on vacation, when you’re with your children, or if you’re doing it for recreation. These types of educational programs are thought to improve connection to nature, interest in science learning, environmental literacy, and stewardship behaviors. Currently, me and F&ES alum and Virginia Tech Professor Marc Stern are conducting a national study to identify the programmatic elements that lead to better outcomes in programs occurring in National Parks and nature centers that is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Museum and Library Studies.
The other area that I focus on is managing tourism to deliver both conservation benefits to protected areas, as well as providing benefits to local people in and around those parks. I’ve been involved in planning efforts focused on establishing new parks, or reorienting existing parks to address major problems that they face.
Q: You’ve said trips to such parks, if done effectively, can transform peoples’ lives — particularly children — or even affect the careers they choose.
Q: How can park officials improve the chances that young visitors can experience such a life-changing experience?
POWELL: I do think environmental education in these settings has an opportunity to be transformative for young people. It’s an opportunity for them to be introduced to amazing stories, animals, and locations that are important to the American people. And these stories are often compelling to young and old alike. For young people, having the opportunity to interact with their friends and also their mentors in those environments — and to be exposed in a way that helps shape their appreciation for the place and an understanding of the natural or cultural environment and how it shapes our narrative regarding who we are as people — can ultimately shape future interest and be a springboard for future careers. It can help them find their passions.
Q: Which parks do it well? And what’s their secret?
POWELL: There are a number of places that are exceptional at offering these types of programs. One that comes to mind is Everglades National Park. It’s been in place since the late ’70s. They’ve offered environmental education programs for Broward, Dade, and Monroe counties, which are located around the park, and target very diverse audiences that reflect the demographics of those counties. They have philanthropic support that allows the schools to bring these children to the park for free. The transportation is provided, and that’s very helpful in attracting diverse audiences to programs.
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.
As I narrowed my search for a research topic, I increasingly focused on the experiential side of things. I was very fortunate to work with Dr. Stephen Kellert and Dr. Bill Burch here at F&ES. They were great mentors. You couldn’t ask for any better. Ultimately I focused on one big question: Does ecotourism influence visitors’ knowledge, attitudes toward park management, and support for future conservation efforts? And does it influence future environmental behaviors? That was an assumption by many people in the field of conservation at that time, so I wanted to investigate this big question.
For my research I compared three different keystone sites that were known as premier ecotourism destinations: the Grand Canyon, Antarctica, and the Galapagos. All three had established ecotourism industries, where you would think they would be excellent performers in that area. Each site had ecotour operators that provided multi-day experiences, with a high degree of education, and they’re very immersive experiences as well. And as “keystone” destinations known around the world, I thought that if ecotourism was going to work, it was going to work in these places. So I decided, let’s investigate and see if it indeed does — and if there are certain conditions that better enhance those experiences to produce positive outcomes.
Q: What were you doing before you came to Yale?
POWELL: I graduated from the University of North Carolina. They didn’t have environmental studies in the early ’80s, so I developed my own major that focused on environmental studies and natural resource management. But I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do… That first summer after I graduated I decided I would become a raft guide in Colorado. And while I was there I met many kindred spirits. During that summer I saved all my money, and bought a plane ticket to Australia and New Zealand, and the following winter bicycled around both islands of New Zealand and part of Australia. I was also able to pick up part-time employment as a raft guide, and it dawned on me during that trip that I could be a guide year-round. So when I returned to guide in Colorado, I began further developing my professional skills and credentials and started applying for jobs in the Southern Hemisphere.
After that first year I returned to Australia to work for the next five years. I would work the southern hemisphere summer and then return to Colorado in the northern summer. I also led trips not only in Colorado and Australia but also in Fiji, Nepal, and China. And I continued leading trips internationally for the next 18 years. I also managed several adventure travel companies that focused mostly on whitewater- and sea kayaking adventures. We offered trips on six different continents, ran about 30 or 40 different trips to different destinations.
The turning point that led me to return to school happened in Fiji. I was on a beach, and it was an El Nino year. The reefs had bleached out and the local people were really suffering. They fished the local reefs for their protein. But they just didn’t have enough food, particularly protein. Ecotourism on these outer islands provided some relief by providing alternative livelihoods. Throughout my career I’ve seen examples where tourism was a positive force, but also saw examples where it was a negative force, where it had overrun local communities, where it was mismanaged, where it was destroying the resources that originally made the place attractive. In this case tourism was filling the gap on these outer islands.
After that I decided to take those professional experiences and come to F&ES to learn more about conservation and environmental education.