Each year our park system has a big competition for Park of the Year and other awards. The competition is tough, and gets tougher each year as more time and energy is put into each park and museum’s presentation to the director and managers that make up the selection committee. The award selection meeting is very enjoyable. It’s a source of pride to everyone in the room to listen to the litany of great work and successes presented. There are good people doing good things out there. The difficult task is making choices between the best of the best. Most of the awards are based on a very important thing – doing excellent park work.
Park work is critical if we are to have a quality park system. Just a short list of park work would include mowing, personnel, budgets, stocking shelves, reception, programs, events, hospitality, publications, exhibits, resource management, enforcement, renovation, construction, maintenance, programs – those many, many tasks that keep a park operating in fine fashion, and keeping visitor satisfaction high.
Park work is often our first thought when we speak of park management. Park work is visible and therefore easily measurable. When the shelves are stocked with interpretive resale and sales increase we see that, and say, “Job well done.” When the park or museum is neat and clean we see that, and say, “Job well done.” When you stay within budget we see that, and say, “Job well done.” Park work is a visible, tangible sign that our park staff cares. We see it and the visitor sees it, and that’s important.
However, there’s more than park work to managing a successful park – there’s also “The Work of State Parks.” We can get so caught up in ‘park work’ that we overlook the work of state parks. The work of state parks is to connect with the mind and heart of each visitor so that they want to keep the park and the agency in the forever business. It involves engaging the visitor in our mission, the park resources, and the purpose and the VALUES of the park and the park system. It is placing the visitor at the right place, at the right time, with the right message, to allow them to rise to a new level of understanding and appreciation for what we protect and what we do – perhaps that’s park-self-actualization. It culminates in the visitor’s realization that the park (or museum, historic site, or zoo) they are visiting has a powerful and meaningful purpose for being, and that purpose needs to continue.
The results of doing the work of state parks are not so visible, and not as easily measured as is park work, at least not in the short-term. It is measured in things like a sense of reverence for a special place, the realization that behavior in a state park is different, the desire to contribute to maintaining this special place, and in support for keeping state parks in the forever business. To reach this end often requires good ‘park work’ – a sloppy park doesn’t lend itself to the higher values of the intangible ‘work of state parks.’ But doing the work of state parks is critical. It’s the act of moving each visitor psychologically from “What a pretty place,” “Isn’t this well kept,” “Don’t they do a nice job here,” to “I care about this place,” “I want to come back to this place,” “I understand and appreciate the value of saving this place,” “I want to help this place be here forever.” One of my workshops addresses the idea that parks, museums and other such sites need to be ready with clear action steps once a visitor reaches the point of saying: “I want to help this place be here forever.”
Spring is at its peak and a busy summer is just around the corner. Is your park merely a neighborhood curiosity? Is it just another place to picnic? Is it just duplicating what the city parks are doing? Are programs about just anything you think will draw a crowd and cha-ching the cash register? Or, are you thinking more deeply. Are you doing the work of the park? Do visitors grasp that your park or museum is a special place that preserves beauty and history for their children and grandchildren? Does your front desk staff know the significance of your park or museum and state your mission and interpretive theme to the visitor? Are programs fun, exciting, and adventurous while incorporating the significance, meaning, and values of your site? Is your park or museum a place that has meaning and value about which your visitors say: “This is a very special place. We will work to keep it here forever.”
“Park work,” and “the work of state parks” go hand in hand. Each is much less without the other. If we are to ensure that our parks are here forever, we must all think, speak, and manage for excellence in both.