Monday, December 10, 2007

Notes from San Diego

As mentioned in an earlier post, I spent two days last week near San Diego, attending and presenting at the Pacific West and Alaska Regional Superintendent's Conference. I want to share some of my notes from the conference, which was insightful and interesting on a long list of topics, including volunteerism, outreach, and partnerships.

The panel I was part of presented on Wednesday morning, for an audience of about two dozen superintendents from Alaska, Washington, and California. My co-presenters were Mandy Vance, Program Manager of Wildlink Yosemite; Michael Richardson, Program Director of the James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club in Denver; and Saul Weisberg, Executive Director of the North Cascades Institute. Together, they represented about thirty years of experience working in partnership with the National Park Service and other public agencies. We each introduced ourselves and our programs, then opened it up for discussion of issues, challenges, and ideas. Many of the superintendents had excellent questions or stories to share from their own experiences. It seems that the two most important issues we need to address, to make such partnerships more common, are 1) the culture of the National Park Service, and 2) funding. NPS culture is an issue because, historically, we haven't done much with partners. We're traditionally a very independent agency, one that has a singular mission, and populated by very independent individuals. Yet experiences such as ours this summer at Rainier have demonstrated how productive and rewarding partnerships can be. Our culture is changing to be more accepting of partnerships, but slowly and cautiously. One of the panelists, who works with multiple government agencies, says that the BLM is currently more open to working with educational non-profits than any other agency. Successful programs have both an agency champion and a non-agency champion. Without both, the partnership tends to fail. But the most successful programs transcend individuals by becoming "owned" and embedded in the culture of the park. "Find a common mission," said the superintendent of Golden Gate. Get together, find out what the barriers are, and work to overcome them. Don't give up before you start.

Funding, of course, is always an issue, and will be here at Rainier, too, as flood-related funding dwindles. Our groups draw on endowments, grants, earned income, and other sources to fund their programs, and invest significant resources into pursuing the funding necessary to keep them going. They lament that it's often easier to get funding for new programs than to sustain existing ones, though individual and corporate donors help. There are some existing sources of funding that we can draw on creatively, like cyclic maintenance funds.

Mr. Richardson commented that one of the major challenges he has faced as an African-American is building relationships between diverse cultural communities and national parks, especially when those cultures are underrepresented in the staff of those parks, or when "traditional" national park activities like hiking and camping are not common activities within those cultures. Yet programs like the Mountain Club, or the education program at Golden Gate, can provide opportunities for youth to engage in natural areas in new ways; and, in turn, national parks can reach out to diverse communities through non-profits and other groups that already serve those communities. "You have to reach out," he said, and once you do, the relationship will continue as long as you continue to provide a positive experience.

It takes time and commitment to cultivate partnership relationships, but they pay off. Youth programs, like the three non-profits on our panel, thrive on working with people who are passionate about their jobs. And ultimately, we have to cultivate the stewardship that created our parks in the first place--it's critical to the future health of our parks.

Other sessions included Lynn Scarlet, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, who stressed that the issues we face in the national parks transcend our borders, making partnerships and collaboration increasingly necessary. Technology is also changing rapidly, and we need to adapt the ways that we use it in order to keep up with our audience. Sustainable solutions, she said, will spring from collaboration and adaptive management, and agency managers are working on new policies to make partnerships easier--for example, giving superintendents more discretion and local authority for managing donation money, and relaxing some of the rules for competetion in cases where the goals of a partnership are not competitive--for example, when the goal is youth involvement rather than profit.

Dr. Robert W. Corell spoke about "Our Changing Climate: Issues for the NPS." I wish I could find a copy of his PowerPoint presentation to link to for you, because it was incredibly persuasive. He spoke in depth about the science of climate change--how the information is gathered, how it's analyzed, how it's tested. He made a very persuasive argument that the past 10,000 years of climate history have been unusually stable, which may have been a major factor in the development of modern civilization. After ten millenia, though, the levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane in our atmosphere are all up sharply.

Oceans are a major factor in shaping our climate. They account for 87% of the world's evaporation and, therefore, heat exchange. 90% of the energy from the sun goes into the ocean. We can model the affects of natural influences on ocean temperatures, and we can model those affects as supplemented by human influences--and the actual data measured around the world tracks with the latter models to a confidence greater than 95%. Oceans are also significant because the phytoplanktons living in them form the foundation of many of our planet's ecosystems. Increasing carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans increases its acidity, and that in turn impedes the phytoplankton's ability to form cellular structures. Based on measurements in the field, we're already seeing the trend moving in that direction.

Arctic ice is another harbinger of change, and incredibly, we're now seeing arctic ice melting significantly faster than computer models predicted. The extent of ice in September of this year was only half as great as it was in 1950, and the models now say that by 2040, give or take a decade, there will be no Arctic ice in September. The melt area on Greenland increased 20% from 1979 to 2005--and the decline is accellerating. This isn't seen as entirely negative by everyone--for instance, Russia is now building ships designed to take advantage of shorter routes through the arctic than are currently available through the Suez Canal. Furthermore, 25% of the world's petroleum reserves are estimated to be in the Arctic. The problem is, the Arctic is full of boundary disputes, and there are few mechanisms in place for resolving them.

Climate change usually has multiple effects. Warmer temperatures mean higher oceans, not just due to melting ice but also due to thermal expansion. Melting permafrost and longer summer storm seasons have increase erosion along the coast of Alaska. The longer, warmer seasons have also contributed to an infestation of bark beetles, whose larvae survive better in the warmer soil and now complete three larvae cycles per year instead of two.

Sobering stuff.

Wednesday morning's plenary session by Dayton Duncan, partner of Ken Burns, was more upbeat. He's working on a 12-hour, 6-episode documentary about the national parks, currently titled "Our Common Treasure: The Story of the National Parks." Three random quotes from his presentation: The story of national parks is "a story as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and, I would say, just as radical," especially in its intention of preserving parks for everyone, not just a particular class of people. The story of national parks, he says, "is not about places--it's about people who became passionate about places." And finally, his greatest concern is that Americans have become complacent, thinking that the parks have always been there and that they are "self-perpetuating," when in reality, they require passionate advocacy today as much as ever. He ended by showing us about ten minutes of rough footage from the documentary, which, of course, was awesome.

The last session I attended was presented by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. He's been working for years on the issue of what he calls "nature deficit disorder." Kids today are demonstrably less connected to natural places than any other previous generation. If this disconnect continues, he says, where will future stewards and political support come from? Kids today increasingly think of nature as something intellectual (a National Geographic special or magazine feature on global warming), or a commodity (an otter on a t-shirt), rather than as an experience. Schools teach great things about the big ecological picture, but provide few opportunities for personal experience in nature. The human child in nature, he says, may be more of an "indicator species" than spotted owls.

Studies show--and this matches my own personal experience--that most of us who work in the field of conservation have special places we remember from childhood. They may not be great national parks, but just a vacant lot or woods near our home (for me, it was the local mill race, the railroad right-of-way, and the field edges behind our church). Studies also show significant connections between experience in nature and overall health--in areas like stress, obesity, and attention deficit disorders. Schools with outdoor programs score better on tests. Finland has the most outdoor education in the world--and the best test scores. Kids with natural play areas tend to play more creatively and collaboratively--even when compared to kids who participate in organized sports.

But this is an intrinsically hopeful issue. There's lots we can do, and broad support for doing something. And in comparison with the negative messages we're bombarded with constantly--for instance, how bleak the future looks due to global warming--this is a positive message. Based on the science, preservation of land is now a public health issue. While some may worry about the "risks" of nature, the risks from a lack of nature are even greater. And there are all kinds of things we can do, from local land management decisions to the landscaping of yards and businesses, to thinking about natural areas within urban areas as connected to one another than than as isolated pockets--a "Decentral Park," if you will.

A lot of this has nothing--directly--to do with volunteerism. And yet, it's all part of why we do what we do, isn't it? And it's tremendous food for thought as we shape volunteer programs that engage both adults and children with natural places.

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