Opinion

Sharing our national parks with the next generation

When I finished my second term as governor in 2003, I embarked on an unconventional new adventure: I hopped in an RV with my wife Mary and our two children and circumnavigated the country.

It was an incredible trip, filled with family memories that will last a lifetime — and many of those memories involved National Parks, from the sheer size of the Grand Canyon and the dramatic waterfalls of Yosemite to the wildlife of Yellowstone. Even with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery right in front of my eyes, discovering these special places with the kids made each stop especially memorable.

The looks of wonderment on the faces of young people as they first experience these truly amazing places are part of what make our National Parks so special. For more than a century, these protected lands have been passed from generation to generation, as each new age group takes on the hallowed responsibility to protect parks for those who come next. In order to fulfill that promise, the National Park Service has changed dramatically over the last 101 years, using new techniques and technologies to better accomplish the goal of preserving these sites for the future.

Some 14 years after that family expedition, I’m a member of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, where the evolution of the NPS is something that I think a lot about — namely, what’s next? What are the newest, latest approaches we can employ to maximize the nation’s ability to enjoy and protect these lands? For my money, one of the best opportunities we have to modernize these sites is by taking advantage of the digital space.

In the 21st century, the internet touches almost every part of our day-to-day life – but for years, NPS did not have a system to allow the online purchase of park passes, for example. I pushed both NPS and the Department of the Interior to authorize a pilot program for these online sales — and they did. In February of 2016, an online ticketing service was launched for Maine’s own Acadia National Park, the first of what would be seven parks participating in the pilot program.

The system’s been running for about a year and a half now, and last week the Subcommittee on National Parks was given a report on the program’s results during a hearing on ‘Encouraging the Next Generation to Visit National Parks.’ The ePass system received rave reviews, and it’s made a particularly strong impact on Acadia –– 72 percent of all digital sales were made to Acadia National Park, and digital sales accounted for 10 percent of the park’s total entrance fee receipts in 2016, and total digital sales to the park are higher so far this year.

Last week, while making a show of just how easy it is to get a pass, I did my part to contribute to those numbers: while Senator Steve Daines of Montana introduced the hearing, I bought myself a pass to Acadia on my iPhone.

With so much positive feedback, it’s no surprise that the National Park Service told me they plan to expand online sales to other park locations. This is exactly the type of innovation we need for our National Parks. Even a small step, like giving the option to purchase a ticket online, connects more people to our storied tradition of National Parks and ensures the parks are recognized as an important American legacy.  

Given his status as the father of the National Park Service, it feels fitting to close this column with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, who once wrote that the establishment of the NPS was “justified by considerations of… the effectiveness of outdoor life and recreation in the production of good citizenship.” Old T.R. was right, of course. There lies the greatest value of this national promise; the beauty of these places reminds us to always be forward thinking and to always work to leave a better world than the one we inherited for those who come next.

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