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Public Lands

Irreplaceable icons: The state of the National Park Service in its 100th year

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This year, the U.S. national park system will celebrate its 100th anniversary, and visitation is booming. But how have the parks changed, how has the outdoor industry kept them thriving and what threats do they face as they
move into a new century?

Toroweap Point Sunset, Grand Canyon National Park. Photo from
Toroweap Point Sunset, Grand Canyon National Park. Photo from

It’s hard to imagine the outdoor industry without the U.S. national parks. There would be no Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall (or no Warren Harding on it, for that matter, either) without Yosemite. There would be no Skip Yowell and Jansport climbing Mount Rainier with retailers and friends year after year. No documentaries by Ken Burns. No memorialization of the good and the ugly in our history. And there would be no places of recreation, of meditation, no places to dream about taking all that outdoor gear that keeps everyone working in a business that tries to protect the place it exists to serve.

In its centennial year, celebrating its history as an agency developed to protect and preserve these irreplaceable landscapes for public enjoyment, the National Park Service (NPS) is working to reintroduce itself to the public. Twenty-first-century initiatives like the “Find Your Park” campaign have been hugely successful. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many visitors these new campaigns have pointed to the parks, something is clearly working: In early December, the NPS announced that it was on track to reach 300 million visitors in 2015, a record.

“Our goal is not to just blow out the birthday candles,” said Alexa Viets, coordinator of the NPS’ National Parks Centennial. “There are parks in every state and most communities in the U.S. It’s really important to us that the public get to know these places over the next 100 years.”

So it’s no surprise that the outdoor industry is a natural partner to the National Parks Service, and has proved to be a good one according to Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, the official charity for U.S. national parks.

“Thanks to partnerships across the outdoor industry, including REI, Coleman, Columbia, Toad & Co., O.A.R.S. and Osprey, we’re able to connect new and diverse audiences to our national parks,” Shafroth said.

“There are opportunities for all companies, big and small, to support our national parks and we look forward to growing and building more partnerships as we enter into the second century of the National Park Service.”

“REI was born in a national park,” said Marc Berejka, REI’s director of government affairs. “Our founders, Mary and Lloyd Anderson, started REI in order to put great gear into the hands of friends who wanted to climb Mt. Rainier. Mt. Rainier and the nation’s many national parks are our gems – our shared inheritance. Because of funding challenges, some of the parks have fallen on hard times. It’s our duty to help sustain them for future generations.”

REI has put cash behind that sentiment. supporting non profits that work with and in the parks and partnering to become the official retailer of The Centennial.

“The national parks encompass some of the country’s — even the world’s — most iconic outdoor experiences. It’s not just Yellowstone and Yosemite, but also less well-known parks like North Cascades in Washington and Biscayne in Florida, that offer life-changing experiences. We’re also supporting the Centennial because we want to help get today’s generations to enjoy the country’s more hidden gems. The theme for the Centennial is #FindYourPark. We want to help people find the less travelled opportunities in Parks,” said Berejka.

Many outdoor brands have created limited-edition collections to honor the park service in its centennial year. Pendleton created its first national park blanket to honor Glacier National Park in 1916, and has been producing it ever since. In 2015, it debuted a larger collection of national park products, which will expand significantly in 2016. Part of the proceeds from the collection will support rehabilitation efforts at Glacier and Grand Canyon national parks.

SmartWool, too, has honored the national parks system indirectly, through a recent collection of hats, socks and sweaters honoring Charley Harper, an artist who composed posters for the National Park Service. “Our connection with any wild place outdoors is really, really important for us,” said Carol Davidson, vice president of global brand marketing at SmartWool. “Being able to bring the national park collection to life through the centennial is great for us.”

Viets agreed that it’s a two-way street — people buy outdoor gear to visit the parks, and in return such companies support them. “It is absolutely a symbiotic relationship,” she said. “The National Park Service can’t make these places available to everyone without the support of private philanthropy.”

Everything is not rosy in the parks, however. Although visitation is increasing wildly throughout the system, the Park Service is not without financial challenges or external threats. For example, uranium mining outside Grand Canyon National Park threatens its seeps and streams, and the gateway town of Tusayan is draining nearby water sources. More traffic also means more maintenance, and there’s a backlog of projects in the billions. While that is a tough number for the park service to overcome, it’s not insurmountable if the political will is there to support the parks. In the grand scheme of the nation’s budget, it amounts to a “rounding error,” said Dave Nimkin, senior managing director at the National Parks Conservation Association.

In spite of its own budgetary needs, the parks have proved a windfall to local economies – to the tune of $30 billion each year. The National Park Service says that for every $1 in federal tax dollars invested, it returns $10 to the U.S. economy. Without that support those communities can suffer: The government shutdown in 2013 crippled park gateway towns that rely on thousands, or millions, of annual visitors from all over the world.

“We really need to hear the voices of all citizens,” Nimkin said. “We have support from the [Outdoor] industry association. We know we have support from the large businesses … but we need to hear all voices saying, ‘This is important for us as Americans.’”

Indeed, it has long been an American tradition to journey to the southwest and feast on iconic sites like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Arches national parks. Other sites preserve even the ugly pieces of history, like battlefields and the creation of the atomic bomb. “For better or for worse, they’re not always great stories, but it’s the role of the National Park Service to help interpret not only these special landscapes and places but also the ongoing story of America,” Nimkin said.

Photo by Cameron Martindell,
Photo by Cameron Martindell,

The parks need to adapt to a changing America though, and diversity has been a problem. Amy Marquis and Dana Romanoff, co-directors of National Park Experience (, have set out to solve just that. One of their key goals in making films about powerful national parks experiences is to encourage people of all backgrounds to visit. Currently, a huge chunk of visitors are white and aging, they said, and they want that to change. Currently they are working on a film that follows a Navajo family living on reservation land at Canyon De Chelly National Monument. They hope the stories they tell through film will encourage culturally diverse communities to visit parks themselves, and later tell their own stories about their experience there.

“That set of visitors does not reflect what America looks like today,” Marquis said. “It’s the right of every American to be able to see these places, and go to Yosemite, and have a transformational experience here. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you in a certain place, it’s a lot more uncomfortable to go to that place.”

The NPS has proved it has been able to change over time, however. It has worked to better preserve original architecture and ruins by protecting what’s there rather than rebuilding it, and it has adapted to serve its growing number of visitors. Shuttle service at Zion National Park in Utah, for example, cuts down on the need for parking, but also increases the number of visitors. Pit toilets have been precariously dropped by helicopter, which brings its own challenges.

“Our understanding of how to ensure that the public has the ability to enjoy these places while we preserve them for future generations continues to evolve,” Viets said. Congestion brings light pollution, among other things “that weren’t really considerations in the same way 100 years ago.”

Despite their image as icons, the sanctity of the parks is not guaranteed. For example, the Grand Canyon, perhaps the most iconic of the parks, faces many unique challenges. Beyond uranium mining and helicopter tourism, a controversial gondola project on private land would transport people by the thousands from the rim to the river. With that would come housing, lodging for visitors, restaurants, shopping and even more of a water shortage in the arid West.

According to Roger Clark, program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, the battle to protect that park and others will never end. “We want to protect these places because they cannot be replaced,” he said. “We may stop a gondola today and a uranium mine tomorrow, but our grandchildren will still have these economic pressures trying to nibble away something that is truly irreplaceable.”

We will be publishing articles from Outdoor Retailer Daily Winter Market 2016 over the next few weeks. Find this article on pages 25 and 26 of the Day 2 issue.