Former Director of the National Park Service Robert Stanton spoke in the Atwood Theatre Tuesday afternoon about the history of the Park Service and where it stands today.
Stanton served as director of the National Park Service (NPS) from 1997 to 2001, and then continuing on to serve as the senior advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. As a senior analyst, Stanton gave advice on topics including the environment and education.
During his time, he dealt with various aspects of the NPS in volume. Stanton helped balance a budget exceeding $2 billion, managed thousands of employees and guided park visitors during his 35 year serving the National Park Service.
Stanton began with an overview of the history of the National Park Movement, recounting significant points in history since 1872. Stanton went onto cover the history of the National Park Service, giving brief descriptions of the periods and acts that helped drive the Service to what it is today.
Starting at the very beginning, Stanton explained how Congress began designating land after the Civil War, turning them into National Parks, giving Yellowstone National Park as an example. He said Congress continued to place more and more land and parks under the care of the U.S. Department of Interior, and then, in 1916 the National Park Service was cultivated to focus in on the preservation and conservation of the national parks.
Having grown significantly over time, today the National Park System is broken down into seven regions that covers 401 units of the National Park System, including the United States, Puerto Rico and Guam.
This coming year, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th year anniversary.
“What is interesting about the growth of the National Park System, and if you were to take a look at the first 40 or 50 parks, [they] primarily spoke to our rich, natural heritage,” he said. “There was a thrust to take care of the natural areas.”
He said that the a reorganization act that was signed in 1933, caused the sights to change for the National Park Service, leading to the preservation of the numerous sites around the United States, including civil war and revolutionary war sites.
Having taken on even more responsibility, it was with that act “that said something about us as a people, and as a nation,” Stanton said. “And that continues today, so you have a great mixture of our rich natural heritage, but also of our rich and diverse cultural heritage.”
“And it takes all skills, all disciplines, [and] all professional walks of life to manage the National Park Service, [and] to care for these areas.”
Stanton began finishing up his overview of the National Park Service history, and followed with the current outlook of the National Park Service.
“What stands out about the National Park Service, opposed to other land management agencies,” he said, is that the Organic Act of Aug. 25, 1916, surrounding the ideas of preserving the land, while still allowing the public to enjoy these areas, and retaining that balance.
While taking questions from the audience, Stanton moved into some of the challenges that the National Park Service is facing today, covering both the urban and natural sides.
With the continued growth, he said that the implementation of roadways to the parks have had an impact on the parks system. In addition to the development and construction of roads and park facilities–like visitor centers or park housing–the numerous invasive plant and animal species are also playing into the challenges and impacts that affect the National Parks System.
“One of the recent success stories has been the restoration of wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem,” he said. Though, other stories haven’t prevailed like the wolves in Yellowstone. He said that some ecosystems have been affected adversely due to invasive species, particularly “large, exotic snakes in the Everglades [National Park]” that have been released by owners.
Moving onto the more urban side of things, Stanton said that communicating and getting on the same platform as the younger generations has surfaced as challenge for the NPS.
He said that the NPS has moved toward education and communication through social media and other tools to better connect with the younger generation.
“We would still like to see people actually visit a National Park,” He said. “But there seems to be some disconnect…young people are not connected with the outdoors.”
Stanton said that to help bridge the “disconnect” that the younger generations have with the outdoors has been the NPS utilizing authorized funds to transport people and youth from neighboring areas, and bring them into the parks for educational opportunities.
“I feel if these resources are better known and better communicated to our young people, they will avail themselves to the resources,” he said. “And sometimes it doesn’t require a plane trip, or a train trip, or a car trip, sometimes these resources are very close by.”
“I have to be very confidence that each succeeding generation will assume some responsibility of caring for these resources and become connected,” he said.
“And they don’t have to necessarily become connected as a conservationist…it could be a manifestation of in terms of how they make business decisions as a banker or as a carpenter, or an automobile dealer…[it’s about] having some environmental ethics so that they don’t want to contribute to the degradation of our environment.”
He said that there has to be more “structural connection” between each generation, and that Congress has done a good way of building this connection through employment.
Stanton took questions until just after 3 p.m., talking about his time as the director, describing challenges he’s had to face, including losing two Rangers in their service and taking on the environmental challenges.
“Your national park service and the resources of the national park system are places and resources for learning, for education,” he said.
“To bring to the attention of all, that these resources are there for their benefit and out of it, hopefully, will become better citizenry, in terms of respecting ourselves and other species that inhabit this place we call Earth, and understanding the richness of our cultural heritage, which isn’t all glamorous, as we all know. “
“All of those stories are told in your national park system, and out of those experiences, we will become a stronger nation, and we will move just a wee bit farther toward a perfect union.”