Like brainstorming, maybe we need to “planstorm” before we begin to plan by asking a defining question: What the heck are we doing?
Preparing to team teach interpretation planning with Dr. Teresa Coble as part of the Stephen F. Austin State University’s on-line graduate program, is causing me to think back on what I know about planning. I got my start with this park system way back in old ’76 as a state park planner. Right away my boss taught one of my first lessons when he took me into his office and said: Planning can take forever. Your job is to GET THINGS DONE! (Yes, I remember that.)
Before that I was in graduate school at Utah State University and took a couple of excellent courses taught by Dr. Steve McCool in park planning and resource management planning. During the final year of that Master’s program BLM came out with what they called ‘a plan’ for land management. It generated a lot of discussion. Part of that discussion was simply the question: Is this a plan at all. The consensus was that it was not – it was a list of actions to be taken but a list is not a plan. BLM needed to go back to the drawing board and really do some planning, not listing.
Here in state parks we have had many discussions about what a park plan is and is not. We have developed systemwide state park plans, We refer to the ‘73 plan often. It was pretty good, especially in defining our park system and establishing many of the policies and the philosophy under which we work today. We also refer to the current plan – 1981. Yep- that’s our most recent systemwide planning document, but it still provides guidance. Yes, we need a plan for the 21st century!
More recently, we have generated a list. The list is often referred to as a plan but really (like the BLM plan/list) it’s a list of projects to spend money on. It was developed as a public document, a promise to the people of Arkansas of how the 1/8th–cent Conservation Tax money would be spent if passed. It did pass and the list served a good purpose and continues to guide our spending. Most of the projects on the list are now completed, and those remaining take top priority. After all, those are the things we promised we’d do, so we’re doing them. We can point to the list and check off all the things that have been accomplished. That’s all good. Maybe that’s a plan … but not really. It’s still just a list.
Like your grocery list – it’s a list of what you want. How you get to the store, how you get those items, how many you need, what they cost, how you’ll pay, and how you’ll get them home, and maybe even cooking and eating them is the plan, and that plan includes the list. Not having a plan as a basis for our list has jumped up to bite us more than once.
When the Conservation Tax was passed it seemed like a good idea to partner with an engineering consultant firm to develop park master plans and we had a lot of discussions about the definition of “master plan.” Turned out that the engineers knew how to make site development plans, and that’s what we got. So we have roads and buildings noted on park maps and some wordy descriptions to accompany them, and those are our park master plans. They work well as a framework for park development. But they are not master plans, they are park development plans.
The items above work pretty well, the problem is the nomenclature. We should call the project list a project list, it’s not a plan. We should call the park plans structural plans or engineering plans or park layout plans, but not master plans. Using the wrong name implies that the plan takes all the elements into account that a true master plan should. If it’s not one, it’s likely it doesn’t, and that can mean trouble.
A critical element is recognition of what these documents omit. Does the park development plan take into account the historical or natural resources that are our first obligation to protect and preserve? Does the plan take into account the unique “state park experience” noted in the ’73 statewide park plan and guide develop in a way that maintains and enhances that special experience? Does the plan enhance interpretation opportunities and identify the essential experience locations and make those fully accessible, as appropriate, to our visitors?
When we start talking about plans we really need to define what we are talking about, what we want, what we expect, and how we will use the document. And very important: we need to honestly say what we are NOT including. For example, we are a resource-based agency. Anything called a master plan MUST identify the character and quality of the resources and include management strategies for those resources. That could include a natural area management plan, or a collections plan, or a historic buildings preservation and maintenance plan. And of course a master plan is not complete without an interpretation component that defines our audiences, our resources, our highest and best messages, and how we will get those messages into the minds and hearts of our visitors – and those people who are not visitors.
In real practice here, we aren’t producing single documents that contain “everything you wanted to know about a park master plan but were afraid to ask.” Instead, we have evolved into a process where our experts in our several sections use their expertise to develop plans in their area of interest. Right now our Program Services Division (interpretation) uses an immersion process, two days of intensely focusing on the audience, purpose, mission, and park resources to identify the distinctive competence of the site and the essential messages. From those we carefully write park themes. All this becomes a park interpretation plan that not only guides the messages, program, events, exhibits and publications of the park, but also informs park budgeting, resource management, visitor experiences, and even major infrastructure development.
Parks with a completed interpretation plan have a great advantage over those sites without such a plan. But we don’t call the document a master plan, because it’s not one, we don’t call it a development plan, because it’s not one, and I hope it’s much more than a list. We call it an interpretation plan because that’s what it is. It involves many aspects of the park, but its goal is to clarify, strengthen and guide park interpretation.
Perhaps one day our process will evolve again and the park’s several individual plans will be massaged into a single homogeneous document…perhaps that will be called…a master plan.