Can Digital Technology Save America’s National Parks?

By Shane Steele
August 4, 2016

I fell in love with California at the age of 11 during our family trip to visit the National Parks out west. Growing up in rural towns in New England, I already had an appreciation for nature. But the epic imagery of California — the redwoods and palm trees, Yellowstone’s El Capitan and the Golden Gate’s Marin Headlands — left an indelible mark on my imagination. It took me another two decades, but I finally made the move to the Golden State where I always felt I belonged.

At age 11 with my brother at Yosemite National Park.

Exploring the National Parks looks a lot different today than it did on that road trip years ago. We use technology to map trails, hunt Pokémon, and generally stay connected so we can share our epic adventures and the breathtaking beauty of the parks with our friends on social media.

Our obsession with digital technology even in the great outdoors may make some nature enthusiasts (and my parents) cringe. After all, science has proven what we already know intuitively: that disconnecting in nature is good for the human brain. It gives us a break from the mental fatigue of our busy, connected lives and in turn it can boost our mood, relieve stress, make us healthier, and even smarter.

But embracing this evolution of technology in the outdoors to cater to younger Millennial visitors may be our only hope for preserving the National Parks. In spite of the fact that the parks drew a record 305 million visits in 2015, attendance skews heavily older and white. Low attendance from young diverse Americans has the National Park Service downright scared of what could become of these natural venues. With an $11.9 billion backlog of necessary maintenance costs, it’s no wonder. The parks could be in trouble if they don’t expand their appeal as our population ages and becomes more diverse.

So what do we do? How do we encourage our communities to care about the parks? With this year’s 100th anniversary celebration, there are a number of ways you can #ChimeIn for the National Park Service:

1. Find your park and go.
Did you know The Statue of Liberty, the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, and the San Antonio Missions are all National Parks? As part of their centennial celebration, the NPS is working to create more awareness across age groups and ethnicities about the diversity of park experiences through a new campaign called Find Your Park. You might be surprised which parks are right around the corner. If you’re feeling indecisive, take the Park Quiz to find the best one suited for you; if you’re feeling ambitious, this handy map shows how you can visit nearly every National Park in one epic road trip.

2. Share your National Park moments.
Reserve a yurt in the Smoky Mountains. Plan a whitewater rafting trip in Glacier Park. Or even organize a Pokemon hunt in Yosemite. Whatever adventure suits you, be a social advocate through sharing your National Park moments. Mention the NPS on Twitter (@NatlParkService) and Instagram (@NationalParkService), along with popular hashtags like #FindYourPark and #GetOutdoors. You can even submit stories and posts online as part of the Centennial Project contest.

3. Get your company involved.
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, conducted a study which showed people performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. Talk about productivity! If there’s a park near you, use it as a team building location. Getting your company involved will not only prove beneficial for your teams, but it can also multiply your support for the parks.

4. Make a donation.
The very first national parks were established thanks to the vision and effort of private citizens who were passionate about protecting America’s natural beauty for future generations. Today, your tax dollars and donations are what sustain the parks. Learn how you can donate here.

5. Buy a National Park Annual Pass for a friend.
If you want to maximize your happiness, spend your money on experiences, not things. That’s the finding from research conducted by psychology professor Dr. Tom Gilovich at Cornell University. When you purchase a National Parks Annual Pass for a friend, you’ll be giving the gift of an experience you can share since one pass is good for two people. As science shows, you’ll also be giving the gift of lower stress and other health and mental benefits when you help your friends get back to nature.

The $80 annual pass covers entrance fees to all of the nation’s national parks for one year. The price tag may sound steep, but if you plan to visit more than one park in a year it can save you some dough.

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