National Parks for America’s next generation


By Sarah Bearup-Neal
Sun contributor

This is the first in a series of articles prompted by the centennial celebration of the founding of the National Park Service. Throughout 2015, the Glen Arbor Sun will publish a range of stories about the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and people’s relationships with their local park.

The National Park Service (NPS) hits the century mark on Aug. 25, 2016. In the lead up to its 100th birthday, the NPS is giving itself a gift called “Find Your Park,” a proactive campaign to cultivate the next generation of park fans, friends, supporters and advocates.

“We’re using the centennial as an opportunity to reach out to new audiences,” says Merrith Baughman, chief of interpretations and visitor services at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

New park users are being cultivated through a multi-tiered social media campaign: websites, hash tags, Facebook posts, and videos recorded by celebrity spokespeople such as actor Joseph Gordon Levitt and First Lady Michelle Obama.

“The next generation is more familiar with those things,” says Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear.

FindYourPark-SBDNL signThe “Find Your Park” campaign’s key strategy is “engaging people to share their own experiences” in their own park. They can do so, for instance, by using the program’s hash tag #findyourpark to populate the Park’s Twitter and Instagram sites. That, Ulrich says, is the lure — not the end result.

“You can vicariously enjoy virtual posts or beautiful videos, but it’s only an enticement,” he says. “Social media and digital devices are a two-edged sword. The fault with them is they encourage people to sit in front of a screen.”

The hope is, he adds, that these ubiquitous devices will be used to whet appetites for the literal. “There’s no substitute for a real experience,” Ulrich says.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was created by an Act of Congress in 1970, preceded by a contentious resistance by many landowners whose properties were designated for acquisition, and land speculators.

“During the 1960s, during that time of debate, the area was really on the verge of being developed,” Ulrich says. “I can’t count the number of areas that were being platted for subdivisions.”

One case in point can be found in the 2001 book that chronicles the history of the park’s creation, Sixties Sandstorm. “Continued subdivision development in the proposed park area presented another obstacle … to park plans,” wrote author Brian C. Kalt. “… (W)here there had been 266 residences within the proposed park boundaries in 1965, there were 436 by October 1970. Noting the incompatibility between preservation and such developments, Senator (Philip A.) Hart characterized the opposition as including those who ‘could taste subdivision profits melting away’.”

Kalt notes that a majority of park opponents were private homeowners “fighting for their homes.” But, he adds, “real estate developers … had a powerful negative environmental impact on the Sleeping Bear area, and generally were the people with the biggest economic objections to the park proposal.”

FindYourPark-North Bar LakeWhat that 1970 Act of Congress did was preserve 84 million acres of place and space that, in the absence of such an act, would have been accessible only to the private landowner. In his video, Joseph Gordon Levitt recalls his family’s camping trips in Yosemite National Park and offers a grim, graphic, what-if picture: “It could be a parking lot or a shopping mall if it weren’t for the Park Service.” Ditto that — or some variation on it — for Sleeping Bear.

Instead, the legislation for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore created 65 miles of shoreline — open to the public; and 71,213 acres of diverse forest, wetland and dune ecosystems, much of it free of human artifact. And the NPS wants all of us to find it. Especially the kids. The benefits of being out-of-doors used to be an understood given of childhood. Today, the concept seems antique.

“There’s been a lot of research done on kids not spending time outdoors,” Baughman says. “There’s a lot of competition for their time.”

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), childhood has become an indoor experience, a shift observed over the last two decades.

“The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen,” the NWF reported on its website. “This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last 20 years; the United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world; and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen precipitously.”

The toll on body, mind and spirit is marked; yet, it’s quickly reversed when the kid’s connection and time spent outdoors increases, according to the NWF.

President Barack Obama launched the “Every Kid In A Park” program, an initiative to “(h)elp us open one million outdoors for kids.” The demographic focus of this program is 9-year-olds. Beginning in September, every 4th grade student can get a free park pass. The “Every Kid” website is content rich: stories, challenges and an online version of the Junior Ranger program called WebRangers.

Fourth grade is a good time and a good age to forge the link between the park and kids, Ulrich says. It’s an ephemeral period before middle school, when teen concerns and hormones kick in to a distracting degree.

Fourth graders are also studying history, in which the parks are seeped.

“When people think of the National Parks, they think of the Grand Canyon,” Ulrich says. There are 407 parks today, in rural, wilderness and urban settings. One of the newest additions to the NPS system is the Pullman National Monument located on the south side of Chicago. It explores the industrial revolution, the labor movement and civil rights as it tells the story of Pullman porters who worked the sleeping car of the nation’s once-mighty train system. As the Pullman National Monument illustrates, not all parks are about the natural world.

“The Park Service is the caretaker of places that have been determined to contain our nation’s natural and cultural heritage,” Ulrich said. “The NPS tells these stories, and tells some of the best stories. The nation’s demographics are changing, and we want people to find their own voice and face in those stories.”

It’s a gift, he said, that keeps on giving.

For more information about the NPS centennial celebration visit:
To find your park and share stories about your experience in it, visit:

To learn more about Kids in the Park, visit:

For more information about the NWF report on the health benefits of being outdoors, visit: