I recently wrapped up the summer season working as a Visitor Use Assistant at one of the nation’s most popular landmarks – Yosemite National Park. And just like any major museum, zoo or aquarium, Yosemite has its most popular attractions, and its lesser-visited areas. But how do you attend to the needs of up to 4 million visitors per year, when your ‘museum’ is the size of Rhode Island? Visitors to any exhibit or event, no matter if it is in the middle of a crowded city or fifteen miles into the wilderness, will still have the same basic needs. And within many National Parks, those needs are compounded by the unfamiliar geography and wildlife that often surrounds the visitor.
Vast and wild as it is, Yosemite shares many of the same issues as any other museum or cultural attraction in the country might have—such as wanting to attract more African American visitors, or the challenge of getting people out to a remote location. And those of us who are responsible for providing visitor services at any museum or park know that the availability of restrooms, food and seating are paramount. But how often have you had to think about finding a place for your visitors to sleep or advise them on what to do if they see a bear? In a training session for working with Yosemite visitors, we discussed Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and how the bottom tiers of safety and security are essential before the visitor can feel comfortable enough that we can move them into higher levels of engagement.
My revelation on this topic came over this past summer, when I took a few different groups of “city friends” hiking up to the top of a peak. On each mountaintop there was someone in the group for whom it was the first time they had ever looked around and seen nothing but wilderness. These are the type of experiences that park rangers seek to provide, so that we can encourage them to become more than just a passive visitor, and inspire them continue protecting wild areas for many generations to come. But first we have to provide for their basic needs, which—as Oprah Winfrey recently learned—is much harder than you might think.
The challenges of managing a marvelous place such as Yosemite are as numerous as the trails crisscrossing its land—and the list of rules and regulations that govern and protect the National Park System is equally abundant. But it is exactly because of these rules, along with more than a century of passionate leadership, that it is easy to agree with Ken Burns, that the National Parks really are America’s Best Idea.