Covering 'America’s Best Idea' — National Park Stories Near You

May 2, 2018
Hikers perch on a bench along the trail to the Edge of the Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. It’s just one of the park system’s 417 units sprinkled throughout the United States, including protected natural areas, as well as historic sights, memorials and more. Photo: U.S. National Park Service

TipSheet: Covering 'America’s Best Idea' — National Park Stories Near You

As the outdoor recreation season gets underway, environmental journalists may want to remember how many good stories they can find in the United States’ national parks.

Most park system units embody facets of the regional environment that your audience is most eager to relate to — and often the ones that are most vulnerable. But it’s a story that varies according to where you are.

The National Park System actually consists of a whole lot more than the 58 or so units officially called “national parks.” It also includes seashores and lakeshores, monuments, preserves, historic parks and sites, battlefields and military parks, cemeteries, memorials, recreation areas, parkways and trails.

In fact, the park system proper contains some 417 units. The National Park Service (a bureau of the Interior Department) administers or helps administer some other areas as well, including Marine Protected Areas and parts of the 203 Wild and Scenic Rivers, not to mention the 90,000-plus places on the National Register of Historic Places.


Each Park System unit is

unique. And each has an

interesting and human story.


In this tip, we use the abbreviation NPS to mean either the National Park System or the National Park Service.

So there is almost certainly one near you. But how do you cover it?

Here are two things to keep in mind. First, each Park System unit is unique — and each is also an example of something. Write about both. And then one other thing: each has an interesting and human story (documentarian Ken Burns demonstrated this with his public television series, “The National Parks: America's Best Idea”).

The best start is simply to go to the place and discover. There will likely be somebody there, professional or volunteer, who can talk to you. Bring your camera and audio recorder.

National Park Week, which just ran April 21-29, 2018, is naturally a time when parks get a lot of attention, because the weather is often beginning to encourage outdoor visits. And you can get free admission.

But park news goes year-round. Here are six key issues that may come up at the park near you:

  1. Maintenance backlog. The famous $11.9 billion National Parks maintenance backlog is real and NPS units deserve the upkeep. But don’t be fooled. It is also a rhetorical device and political football, used mostly to justify something a politician wants to do or not do. For example, to raise fees, privatize parks or not acquire new parkland. Congress could erase the backlog any time it chooses just by appropriating money. What most needs upkeep in your local park?
  2. Entrance fee increases. This year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed dramatic hikes in entrance fees for the most popular parks. Public outrage was prompt (may require subscription) and extensive, and Zinke backed off mostly. What was left, apparently, was a $5 increase at some parks. What is the situation at your local park, if it is even known yet? Many units charge no fee.
  3. Overuse. Some NPS units are being loved to death (may require subscription). The most popular units, whether Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone or Great Smoky Mountains, are getting more visits than they can handle. Each unit comes up with its own plan for throttling back visitation. Is your park one of them? What management approaches is it using?
  4. Climate change. Glacier National Park may soon be pretty much glacier-free. The culprit is climate change, which is wreaking all kinds of effects on other NPS units. Many units have already put out public information on how climate change is affecting them. But the Trump administration, which does not “believe” in climate change, has suppressed much (but not all) of this information …  over objections. What’s the situation in your park?
  5. Concessions. Starbucks opened a shop in Yosemite this year. People visiting parks often need food, drink, equipment, lodging, guide service and other things the NPS may not be appropriately able to give or sell them. Quite often, the NPS allows a third-party private business to do this in the park under certain contractual conditions. The arrangement is called a concession, partly because parks are not normally supposed to be sites for commerce. The underfunded NPS can get funds out of it. But promotion of concessions has often been a way for political ideologues to push privatization of parks, or simply for profiteers to exploit them.
  6. Resource conservation. One main purpose of the NPS, under the 1916 Organic Act, is the conservation of park resources so that future generations can enjoy them. The resources are of many kinds, but natural resources like wildlife and ecosystems are often key. Often the threats to conservation are human — everything from off-road vehicles to introduced invasive species. In many NPS offices there is an official whose job is conservation (though they may call it “stewardship” these days). Find that person and talk to them.

Helpful information sources

The National Park Service is actually a pretty good source of information. Their national press office is better than many federal operations. But the thing for reporters to understand is that the working end of the NPS is out in the regional offices and most importantly the individual NPS units. So once you know what unit you are interested in, call their office to find someone who can or will talk to you.

Many parks also have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and you can follow them for timely info. Many NPS units also have areas where books and information are for sale, and these can supplement live human interpreters — visit yours!

In addition, the park system has its own media ecosystem. National Parks Traveler is an independent, nonprofit online news outlet devoted exclusively to covering the National Park System. It follows journalistic standards.  Its website is searchable, making it easy to find background on your park of interest. It updates daily and you can subscribe to its email newsletter.

The National Parks Conservation Association is a nonprofit advocacy group promoting the conservation and welfare of the parks. Press contacts here, here or here. The National Park Foundation is a private partner of the NPS meant mainly as a recipient of money contributions to the system. But they do speak out on park issues and have a media contact.

There is also an array of groups who oppose national parks. Their roots are in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” that resists federal ownership of lands, although a more recent manifestation was in the occupation and standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One contact for this viewpoint is the Property and Environment Research Center.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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