We Can('t)

Message From The Director

In many ways our childhood, or the raising of our own children, has prepared us for the challenges of this past year.  If you are young enough to remember, or have kids of your own, you know that a good bit of a parent’s job is keeping your children safe by reminding them frequently of what they shouldn’t or can’t do.  “Stop!  You can’t do that. It’s dangerous! It’s not yours!  It’s against the law.” (I admittedly raised children that pushed the limits.)

This past year we were all told “we can’t” about a lot of the things we would normally do, and in return, we had to tell a lot of our visitors and staff the same.  We knew early on that we certainly did not want to do anything to jeopardize the health of our staff or visitors, so with a smile on our faces, we tried to explain what we couldn’t do and why.  Many of our interactions suddenly began with an apology, “I’m sorry we can’t open yet.” “I’m sorry no you cannot rent that facility.” “We apologize but we can’t have in-person programs.” or “Sorry for the inconvenience, but we will have to cancel that.”  For park employees, it went against our very nature and we found ourselves conflicted.  But just like those kids that sometimes push the envelope, our team spent much of the second part of 2020 pushing back.

The shock of closing our gates and reducing our staff rattled us all.  In stunned silence, we found bustling parks quiet and empty.  Suddenly with no visitors, our “we-can attitude” took hold. Our team jumped up and said look at what we can do! We worked on projects in typically full campgrounds and busy offices.  When it was time to open, we said we can do this safely and set up facilities and practices designed to keep our staff and visitors safe.  As summer began and we realized we were not going to be able to host some of our favorite events and programs, we said what can we do?  The staff that had never used social media before embraced Facebook Live for the first time, and before you knew it, they were filming and editing whole program series to share.  We hosted a virtual arts and crafts festival, had a fishing contest online, and made videos of rangers from around the state having fun and sharing the parks.  This past year, we hosted more people in-person than ever at our parks, while at the same time, we created more online experiences that everyone, near or far could enjoy. We have grown our audience and shared our parks with more users than ever before.

This we-can attitude is what being a park ranger is all about.  2020 was a year where it would have been incredibly easy to just stick with the “I’m sorry, we-can’t” attitude.  In fact, I am confident most people would have simply said, “We understand. We can’t wait until things get back to normal.”  Our team could have allowed a new normal to define us, instead, they chose to define the new normal.  They are eagerly finding ways to assist our guests, real and virtual, and to encourage people to discover parks.  This last year, a bunch of parks people, outdoorsy tech-challenged by their very nature, have embraced the virtual world and made the park service better for it.  In the past 12 months, we have loaded our Parks YouTube channel (yes, we have one and have had it for a while) with over 130 new videos, some of which went viral!  The content includes curriculum-based lessons, for those that cannot do field trips anymore, funny videos, virtual tours and information.  I am amazed at what this team has learned and done in a year.

This week, as the newsletter with this article is published, we will be conducting our first-ever Park Service Virtual Conference.  Although eager to connect face to face, we knew we could not host our traditional conferences for managers, interpreters and rangers. If we had decided to do nothing everybody would have understood, but that is not in the nature of doers. After months of planning, and help from lots of people, we are having a conference with over 20 virtual sessions.  The sessions are called conversations and instead of the typically limited attendees, we have invited every employee of the park service to attend any that interest them.  Aside from three general session presentations, there are conversations, all hosted in virtual rooms, on filming, maintenance, social media, the dark web, inclusive programming, book reviews, customer service and more.  As exciting as that is, the best part of it is they are being led by people from all over the state, leaders from all parts of our team have stepped up to plan and organize these conversations and it is by far the best content we have ever had in a conference.

As the leader of this team, I frequently get the privilege of representing and speaking for the park service.  It is a responsibility that I take seriously and do my best to make the team that put me here are proud of my actions and words.  I am proud just to be a part of this team, but these past 10 months I have never been prouder of the team I am on.  To know your team’s potential, and to actually see it are two different things.  This year, to see so many people step up and make this a better place to work and visit has been inspirational to say the least.  We are a team of doers, who push the envelope to provide staff and visitors with access and opportunities to enjoy our parks and leave better for the experience, and we have never been better.  As 2021 gets underway, I am confident that whatever the challenge is, we can.