Put in Park, Students Grow Fast
- By Joshua E. Brown
Jillian Spies, UVM class of 2013, sits at a desk on the third floor of UVM’s Aiken Center, copying responses off a paper survey and entering them into a computer. It seems another world from the nearly million acres of wilderness that make up the Olympic National Park on the coast of Washington, a place where she plunged into rainforest with her backpack last summer, looking for hikers.
“But now I see how they’re connected,” she says.
Kai Parker, UVM class of 2013, stands in the rain outside Woodstock, Vt. He’s waiting for a shuttle bus with Laura Anderson, a post-doctoral researcher. They want to ask riders what they think of the “cow-powered” electric trolley that ferries people from the village out to Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park: Is it useful? Why are you riding today?
A one-bus experiment in Woodstock, population 900 — using electricity generated by methane from local dairy farms — may not seem an obvious place to look for lessons on how the National Park Service might manage, say, the millions of people who pour in to see the Grand Canyon, or bumper-to-bumper traffic in California’s Yosemite Valley.
But Kai Parker can see how they are connected.
Hitting the data trail
Both students have had internships and work-study jobs in UVM’s Park Studies Laboratory run by professor Robert Manning. The lab plays a significant role in helping the National Park Service (and other land managers, like state governments) better understand what park visitors’ experiences are like — and what people want from visits to a park. “Their parks,” Manning says.
Both Spies and Parker have put in many hours at the lab over the last few years. And both got plum summer jobs — paid internships — working for the UVM lab at Olympic National Park last summer.
“The trees are twice as big around as in Vermont,” Parker says, with amazement, of his first-ever trip West. “I was not expecting to see snow-capped mountains in summer."
Jill Spies saw a listing for a work-study job: “enter research survey data into the computer,’” and was skeptical, she says, “but then at the end: might get a chance to go to national park over the summer.” And she thought: “I want to do that! I want the job!”
Each summer day at Olympic, the students would fill their packs with “a stack of surveys, print-outs, log sheets, and clip boards,” Spies says — and strap on a lawn chair and a poster tube filled with six oversized photographs.
Then they’d head out, alone, onto trails across the park, sit down in their chair in one of the most beautiful places in the world — and wait for other hikers to come along.
“Hi, my name is Jill. I’m here with the Park Service today surveying hikers about their experience,” was the standard opener, Spies recalls. And most people were “really friendly,” she says, “even if they’d just finished thirty miles.”
The goal: to ask hikers about their perceptions of crowding and access in the park’s many wilderness areas. In addition to the standard sociological questions on the survey, the students would show the hikers a series of Photoshop-altered images of places in the park. These would range from empty, to a few people visible, to a “ridiculous crowd,” Spies says. The hikers would be asked to score their feelings about how acceptable they found the differing levels of crowding, along with a host of other questions.
The data the students collected — the same information they painstakingly enter into spreadsheets as their work-study jobs back in Vermont — helps form a quantitative foundation for one of the lab’s many research projects on behalf of the National Park Service.
About ninety-five percent of Olympic National Park is designated wilderness — and the NPS is developing a new plan to guide its management. The visitor surveys collected by the students inform this planning work.
Olympic National Park is not the only popular one: last year there were about 300 million visits to the U.S. national parks. “That’s a wonderful thing,” Bob Manning says. “But it presents challenges: how do you accommodate 4.5 million visitors to Yosemite National Park, squeezed into just a few months?”
Maybe with buses. The Park Studies Lab has led a series of studies of transportation issues in parks, including ones at Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore and Yosemite.
And one small study in Woodstock, at Vermont’s only national park unit — the 643-acre Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park — is exploring the value of a electric trolley from town out to the park. The goal: reduce automobile traffic while powering the trolley with Cow Power electricity made by Green Mountain Power from manure digesters that produce methane at ten Vermont dairy farms.
It’s a demonstration project called Transit in Parks, supported by the US Department of Transportation, and run by the Park Service to explore alternative ways to move people to and from parks that sometimes face limited parking, winding roads and overcrowded attractions.
Over the summer, the UVM park lab collected more than a hundred surveys from people who had ridden the trolley. But as Kai Parker stands near the bus stop, waiting in a pouring rain, no one gets off. Apparently, Vermont’s national park season is winding down. When the last trolley of the day pulls through the parking lot, it’s empty too. For Parker, who was hoping to talk with a few more riders, it’s a bit disappointing — but both Olympic glory and cold rain are educational.
“When the National Park Service makes decisions about access it can be contentious,” Bob Manning says. “These are the icons of our country, and we all own them together.” So, a basic tenet of American democracy suggests, the managers’ decisions should be informed by the owners.
Which is why Manning and his students help turn the sometimes-vague, narrative opinions of people into hard scientific data. And it’s this data, earned with student boot-leather, that park managers can use to shape plans for, say, where and when to run busses, or how many wilderness camping permits to issue.
On your own
And the students, in return, have a better sense of how their academic training — in courses like Recreation Management and Introduction to GIS — connects to real-world management decisions and life after college.
“It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and learn facts, but it’s another to have someone push you out in the woods and say: you’re on your own for four days with no cell service,” Spies says. “Figure stuff out on your own.”
“We have so many people who are book smart,” Spies says. “I learned to be trail smart.”
Dozens of UVM students — many of whom are Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) majors — have had internships over the years working in the Park Studies Lab with Manning. He’s been a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources since 1976.
One of the students who came through the PRT Program was Ethan Meginnes, UVM class of 1989. “He was a shy, reserved young man,” Manning recalls. “But he blossomed during his internship. It seems to have been a formative experience for him.”
And now Meginnes gives back. He and his wife, Alexandra Loeb, have established a foundation that, among other gifts, has provided annual funding, for more than a decade, to support undergraduate interns, many of whom work in the Park Studies Lab and in the national parks.
The students’ experience seems to be changing their lives and getting them to think more deeply about conservation. “I’m seriously considering a career with the Park Service,” Spies says, “I’m not exactly sure what direction this will lead but I’m really interested in the question, ‘What are we going to do with our land?’”