A New Generation of Park Goers

By Jack Steward

A question that I hear fairly often concerns young people and our national parks. How can we generate more interest in these places? Right now, the average visitor to a national park is middle aged or older. Why do we even need to encourage young people to experience nature in the first place? I believe that it is imperative for our culture to do so for two reasons: First and foremost, the experiences one has in nature builds confidence and impacts your life in positive and profound ways. It changes your perspective on the world and builds incredible relationships between individuals and the earth, as well as others. Secondly, we need young people to care about our national parks if we want them to survive. 

How can we get teens and young adults excited about our national parks? I don't believe there is only one answer; there are many ways that this can be achieved. When you break it down to the core, we need young people to experience nature before we can expect them to care about preserving it.

There has been a lot of debate about whether we need to add more cellular towers to national parks in order to bring them into the digital age. It is a common belief that young people need to be constantly connected. It's like we think that they're cyborgs that can't operate without a cellphone in their hand. I believe this is a misconception. Most people stick close to their phones in order to feel connected to the world. It's a good feeling to know that you're part of a network where people will listen and respond to you. We feel like part of a community and don't feel the need to experience solitude. But solitude gets a bad wrap – it’s important in building us up as individuals. We need to be alone sometimes in order to come to terms with what makes us who we are. 

The national parks offer a two pronged approach to this issue. While exploring the magnificent landscapes we are able to experience solitude in profound ways while at the same time feeling a strong sense of connection to the landscape and others who also appreciate the power of nature. There is a reason that people are so friendly when you meet them on the trail. We share this bond of awe and admiration for our national parks and it just takes one experience in a park for a person to realize how magical these places can truly be. You soon realize that being unplugged is an essential part of the equation. It's liberating to turn off your cellphone and completely immerse yourself in the moment. 

So it just takes one great experience to turn people onto the parks. But how do we get young people there in the first place? I have heard a lot of great ideas over the years. Many people think we need to come up with programs that will engage teens to learn about the environment. This would be fantastic for a kid who is already interested in nature and science, but what if you're like me? I used to love exploring the north woods of Minnesota with my family and after my first trip to Yellowstone I was absolutely hooked on nature and the national parks. So why didn't I enjoy environmental camp in middle school? I was creative, a little rebellious and was searching for some sort of identity. Taking part in an education based activity wasn't going to reach me at that point in my life. I was yearning for an experience that would knock my socks off. I wanted an experience that would allow me to use my creativity and imagination but also push me to achieve things I had never attempted before.

There are many different kinds of people – just like there are many kinds of national park experiences. How do we provide kids with the opportunity to experience nature in a way that engages them? We need to give young people the opportunity to choose their experience. If this is part of a school trip, then offer hiking, canoeing or rock climbing - not just nature walks or bird watching. We need to remember that education is a part of everything we do in this world. If you're into photography, nature gives you the perfect outlet to express yourself and capture an image that you'll never forget. If you’re a musician, the woods and mountains can inspire you to create a masterpiece. And if you are a scientist, nature gives you an infinite amount of questions that are begging to be answered. 

These parks have a way of motivating us to reach for the stars. I remember looking at a mountain for the first time and thinking to myself, “I'm going to get to the top of that thing.” Years later I was inspired to take on a documentary project that seemed impossible for one undergraduate journalism student to pull off. I worked nonstop for a whole semester and told an amazing story that I am extremely proud of to this day. Today these parks inspire me to be a better person. When I'm in a park, I feel pure joy - a constant reminder that this world is a pretty amazing place. Nature is a part of us as human beings and we just need to help kids have an experience that will inspire them to keep coming back.

My theory is that it takes just one great experience to get someone to come back to a park. A repeat experience gets them hooked, and follow-up experiences will make them care. The park experience can be a very personal one but further adventure brings a sense of awareness that we need to protect these places in order to preserve what is near and dear to our hearts. 

We know that these places have the ability to change lives so how can we physically get young people to the parks? Schools are losing the proper funding to be able to take students on trips and many people feel that the national parks are too far away. We need to continue to spread awareness of these places to the public. Rock the Park is my dream because I'm able to enjoy my favorite places on earth while simultaneously sharing what they have to offer. This is why the Find Your Park campaign is so important. We need to let parents know that these parks are everywhere! 

It's our responsibility to get young people interested in the parks. Let's give kids the freedom that these places give us. Work with your kids to come up with nature-based activities that they would like to do. Encourage them to pursue a goal – even if it seems out of reach. It is only by pushing ourselves and working hard that we discover our true potential. Experiences shape our view of ourselves and our place in the world. The only way we can inspire others to care about these parks is to give them the means to experience them in a profound, personal way. I am confident that if we allow kids to find their own adventure, the parks will make an impact on them. 

We don't need to change the parks, but rather change our approach of attracting people. The parks are so cool! You can summit mountains, navigate raging rivers, climb walls of ice, explore volcanos, mountain bike, wind surf, scuba dive, explore caves, view bears, moose, sheep, elk, wolves, and sea turtles. You can sleep under the stars, go fishing, kayak through caves, explore ghost towns, hike through lava rocks, watch the sunrise, observe the northern lights and so much more. There are so many experiences that are just waiting to inspire the next generation of park goers – we just have to get them there.