‘Getting Beyond Our Borders’:
The National Parks in the 21st Century

National Parks Conservation Association
Paterson Great Falls National Monument
This semester, in recognition of the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS), the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) hosted a series of panel discussions to examine the conservation challenges of the 21st century.
jon meade nps
Jonathan Meade
During the series, researchers and practitioners from across the U.S. tackled some of the most pressing issues facing the conservation sector. The NPS is no exception and has handled questions about energy use on public lands and requests to make these resources more accessible to all segments of American society.
The final discussion, on Nov. 29, featured a broad range of professionals from within NPS itself, Jonathan Meade ’99 M.E.Sc., deputy regional director of NPS’s Northeast region. We talked with Meade about what he sees as the major challenges facing the NPS in the coming decades and the opportunities to expand both the boundaries of the NPS and the chorus of voices that can be part of the movement.

Over the past few months we’ve heard many experts describe the biggest conservation challenges in the coming years. What do you see as the most critical challenges — and how can the NPS help shape the agenda?

Jonathan Meade: I think this final discussion at F&ES was a good opportunity to bring in some of the National Park Service leaders who are addressing the critical issues that have been discussed so far, whether it’s energy, relevancy, urban issues and the urban interface, or more broadly the future of conservation in the 21st century. Those are all issues that we are struggling with at large and small scales, both agency-wide and at the park level.
Specifically, they offered some perspective about how these issues get translated into real world operations at NPS and, as you suggested, how we as an agency can help lead into and through the 21st century. Some of the issues that have come up include not just issues that individual parks have to address — such as water conservation, forest management, or dealing with boundary encroachment. In fact what we’re hoping to get beyond our boundaries. It’s something the National Park Service has been talking about for a very long time — trying to find a valuable role within the larger landscape and larger context where our parks are located. We talk about landscapes, we talk about partnerships with external organizations. But I hope the conversation can point towards how we as the Park Service — preserving and working on our lands — can more fully become more part of these larger landscapes.
In the Northeast, I think we have a really unique situation compared with, say, the U.S. West. We have not just working landscapes but highly integrated landscapes. The urban-suburban-rural interface is blurred greatly, with some parks located in highly urbanized and highly suburbanized areas, as well as in more rural areas. We have great opportunities to find roles within those larger landscapes.

You used the word “relevancy.” Is that what you’re talking about, reaching out to these people who might not ever go to a park, per se, but whose lives are affected by these issues?

Meade: Very much so. The way we think and talk about relevancy now includes thinking about how we can be more relevant to new audiences in underserved populations — and, frankly, in the changing demographics of the entire country. So it’s not just geographic, it’s much larger than that. A major component of that is also internal. As an agency we ourselves need greater diversity of voices, backgrounds, and experiences. We are all aware of where we need to be, where we need to go. But we’re not there yet. We’re trying to look for help from partners wherever we can. For instance, we’ve been developing internship programs and collaborative efforts.

Many Americans probably don’t link the Parks Service with urban issues. But this is changing. What do you see as the Park Service’s role in terms of addressing needs in urban communities?

Meade: That’s true. We launched an “Urban Agenda,” which is an innocuous name for a very far-reaching effort to better connect with urban populations both at our urban parks and at all the rest of our parks. How do we address within the entire park ecosystem the notion of the stories we tell, the facilities we have, the manner in which we expect or predict how our visitors will come and experience our park? Even that’s changing. In years and decades past we’ve had some pretty rigid idea about how people should visit parks. We’re trying to evolve those notions where we can, to realize that our core mission is about resource protection and visitor enjoyment, but it isn’t about being overly instructive about what a visitor visit should be. So we’ve been trying to break down those walls a bit. And that’s happening especially at some of our urban parks, some of our historic parks, where we have more opportunities to be creative and do some interesting things.
nps logo yale fes th sq
This fall the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies is marking the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with a series of special events. Read more 
Paterson Great Falls National Monument is one of our new parks in eastern New Jersey. They’re doing some interesting things to build engagement in a city that is particularly economically depressed… One of the unique strategies that has emerged includes efforts to work with the community on a program that recognizes the food culture that is so incredibly diverse and positive for that city. Specifically, we offer a place where people can explore those kinds of things. Part of where I see the parks going, particularly as it relates to urban issues, is finding ways to connect with people that we offer a place to enjoy.
But ultimately our biggest roadblock has been not just convincing folks that national parks are a great place to go, or an interesting place to have an experience, but also that there is something to it being a national park. Even in places like Philadelphia we have an awareness issue. People know the Liberty Bell very well, they know Independence Hall very wall. But they don’t necessarily associate them with the National Park Service. Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City is similar. There are resources there that locals know very well, but they don’t necessarily associate it with the National Parks.
One of the things we did with the Centennial was a very broad-based and very basic awareness campaign called “Find Your Park,” in which we let people know that we had a lot of parks that were actually national parks. It was worth recognizing them as such because Congress recognized them as nationally important, nationally significant

That perception seems to exist for many people. They don’t think of the National Parks even having a presence in the Northeast.

Meade: And we do: We have a really amazing diversity of units. There’s Shenandoah [National Park], Acadia, and the Delaware Water Gap [National Recreation Area], and some of these iconic places. And we’ve got a million little historic sites: There’s Edison’s lab, there’s Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Sagamore Hill. Some of these places are really amazing but not many people get to see them. We also have some of the more unique structured sites. For instance, the Appalachian Trail is, of course, a pencil-thin wide and 2,000 miles long. The Captain John National Historic Trail is the only national historic water trail. And it goes from the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay all the way to New York State, and it’s a very unique construct for us as a park, as a protected area.
We have in other ways some uniqueness, too, just in terms of where we operate. From the historic battlefields to the newest park up in Katahdin in Maine, where you’re smack dab in the middle of a heavily worked forest landscape. So we’ve got the traditional almost-western park landscapes, but we’ve also got something that’s entirely our own.

How will the challenges facing these resources be affected by the recent presidential election? And do these challenges present particular opportunities for students who want to go in this direction for their careers?

Meade: During our Centennial celebration, our core goal was to connect with and inspire the next generation of park advocates and supporters. In some ways the basic call to action is for students and soon-to-be graduates to be thoughtful about how to be part of that. It’s almost trying to galvanize the next park movement. But to be honest, we don’t really know where the next park movement is going. It is a bit of an uncertain future. But if we have great leaders and great people in our orbit, we can do amazing things. And I think that’s part of where we try to tie our broader goals — especially to our relevancy goals. We need a diversity of voices and we need folks helping and working and challenging us in lots of different ways. How do they play a role in that larger conservation community?
Beyond that, the core challenges at the global level for conservation are unchanged. We still need to be diligent and thoughtful and work hard, for instance, on climate change. That’s not going away. We have parks that are at risk. You have Gateway in New York City, Chesapeake Bay, the Cape Cod National Seashore, and other parks that are at risk. And climate change will be an element of what we need to be focusing on in terms of conservation challenges going forward.
Those things are largely unchanged. But one area that will continue to evolve and change is the question of how do we — as well as our supporters and partners — work towards those joint goals of conservation of our resources. If you like being part of a learning organization and if you are open to new ideas, then we want to hear from you. We are really excited about this new generation coming forward with new ideas on how we address these challenges best. How do we bring people into the fold and move forward? 
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: December 7, 2016
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.