PARKS & PEOPLE ~ LIVE
Tuesday, June 22, 1999 (9 PM ET)
"Interpretation in Parks"
A Live Chat on AOL
National Association for Interpretation
Moderator: Davinder Khanna, Forum Leader
GSTDKhanna: Hello everyone, we are pleased to welcome you
to our chat series "Parks & People ~Live." The topic of tonight's chat is
"Interpretation in Parks."
We are honored to have with us Tim Merriman, Executive Director of the National
Association for Interpretation as our guest.
Tim (Naiexec) is an expert in the field of interpretation. He will share
his expertise by answering our questions on the importance of Interpretation in Parks, and
issues related to this program.
If you have any remaining questions after tonight's chat, please feel free to post them on
our Message Boards. Tim has graciously agreed to participate on our boards. He will answer
your questions there from now on.
Before we begin, I would like to thank GSTDPaint and GSTDCarol for their assistance. They
will be helping you to follow the protocol and will organize the incoming questions for
So, let us welcome our guest, Tim Merriman, and begin our session. :)
Tim, thanks for being our guest tonight. If I may ask the first question to start.
GSTDKhanna: How long has interpretation been around as a profession and
what kind of contribution does it make in the natural and cultural resources field?
Naiexec: In some ways we are a fairly new profession. In others
interpretation is the world's oldest profession ;-)
We have taught about our culture and science for all of time. Shaman, elders of the tribe
and the like have taught members of the tribe what was worthy of being passed on.
In a modern context, interpretation has been around about 100 years. John Muir in
California, Enos Mills in Colorado, and others like them led people into the wilderness
and built advocates for open space and parks.
The National Park Service has had interpretation as a core service for many decades. And
now most federal, state and county agencies employ people to interpret nature and history.
It's become a valued service.
Russparks: Are interpretive programs keeping pace with increasing
understanding of ecological principles?
Naiexec: Yes and No. Many programs are on the cutting edge with
interpreters being a part of the planning team with managers, law enforcement and
research. Some places interpretation is regarded as baby-sitting or a frill. We need
better integration between formal environmental education programs that focus on
ecological principles and the nonformal - zoos, parks, museums, and nature centers, which
tend to be site focused and process focused. Interpreters should be trying to stay well
informed about their content areas as well as how to interpret.
PrksRus: When did the Interpretive Assoc. become large enough to have an
Naiexec: We had an office manager for about 20 years before adding a
professional executive role about 7 years ago. When the Association of Interpretive
Naturalists and Western Interpreters Association merged in 1988, we became a group of more
than 2,000 interpreters. That gave us the demographic and monetary strength to employ a
professional staff. We have four full time and 11 part-time in our National Office.
GSTDKhanna: Tim, do you have international members and what is the Pan
American Partners Program?
Naiexec: Yes, GSTD - we have 3,600 members in total now in 22 countries.
Our Pan American Partners Program was started to build a professional network among Latin
Americans. We have two publications in Spanish. El Intérprete is the Spanish newsletter
and Investigaciones en Interpretación is a translation of our peer-juried research
journal in Spanish. Each year we sponsor a Latin American to attend the National
PHorstrans: Where does most of your funding come from?
Naiexec: PHorstrans - our funding comes almost entirely from membership
dues, workshop profits, and sale of professional goods such as books.
Russparks: Are interpretive programs adequately explaining the value of
all ethnic/racial groups of our society?
Naiexec: Good questions Russparks - No, they are not doing that job well.
We have vision goals in NAI for improving diversity amongst our ranks. That helps. We need
people of diverse cultures telling the stories of diverse peoples. We're missing out on
both sides of that right now. National Park Service is making great moves in that
direction with Director Stanton's interests. We support those fully and work on several
fronts to help. It's important that we take on controversial and difficult topics in
parks, like slavery and issues about environmental justice. The number of interpreters
from minorities is woefully low in the profession. That's not easy to correct but we will
work on it until our members better reflect diversity in society.
PrksRus: Other than resource protection, we believe that interpretation
is the next most vital function of the parks. History and science based interpretation is
so important. It is parks that help to remind us who we are as a nation in today's fast
GSTDKhanna: Tim, what role does interpretation play in park management?
Naiexec: They are intertwined. If we only use our abilities to enforce
laws or clean up damage, we miss a huge opportunity. People pitch in and help with
management and law enforcement in subtle ways when they understand the reasons behind the
rules. It's critical for interpretive programs to be more vitally linked to helping
management solve problems. We also need to be more outcomes oriented. Saying that we
passed out 50,000 brochures and conducted programs for 10,000 kids may or may not have
helped. Benchmarking problems such as vandalism or feeding wildlife with measurable
outcomes and showing real declines is the direction we should be headed. Managers have
rightfully left interpreters out of the loop so to speak when we have not been paying
attention to the overall goals of the park or the resource. We have to add value or
shouldn't be wasting the public's money.
PHorstrans: Tell me a little about your membership, and do you put out a
Naiexec: PHorstrans, sort of. We have Legacy magazine which comes out 6
times a year and a quarterly newsletter, the NAI News. The magazine has color feature
articles about work in the profession and the News is more of an update on who is doing
what. It also shows upcoming training events in the field and tips members to new books
and other resources they would want. (Membership information is online at
Russparks: In what specific kinds of ways do you assist NPS interpretive
programs & staff?
Naiexec: Russparks, we are one of the officially designated sources for
professional training for NPS.
GSTDKhanna: Could you tell us about your Interpreters Workshops? What's
the next one coming and who attends?
Naiexec: The National Interpreters Workshop each year attracts about
1,200 interpreters. The next one is in Syracuse New York from Oct. 14-19, 1999. And we
have keynotes, 100+ concurrent sessions, offsite sessions at parks and historic sites,
media awards, and the federal agencies make their major awards at this meeting. NPS gives
the Freeman Tilden Award and the U.S. Forest Service presents the Gifford Pinchot Award
among several others that are made. We also make professional awards presentations there.
Russparks: Do you have any upcoming sessions in Arizona?
Naiexec: Russparks, we will have our National Interpreters Workshop in
Tucson, Nov. 7-12, 2000. We met there 22 years ago and it will be great to take a large
group of interpreters there again. The resources are diverse and serve as a great place to
talk about diverse issues.
GSTDKhanna: By the way, Russparks is Russell Butcher, who has spent his
entire life in working with national parks.
Naiexec: I detected that I was talking to a professional in the field. :)
Russparks: Tim, how great you are coming back to Tucson!
Naiexec: We are excited about being back in the Southwest for a meeting
and hope it attracts many members from south of the border.
GSTDKhanna: Tim do you travel outside of US? What kind of interpretation
programs do you see in other countries?
Naiexec: I was in Panama a month ago to present to about 200 interpreters
and park managers from 8 countries. They really are excited about having better
connections to the Internet in many of their offices because it gives them the kind of
professional support and opportunities to share ideas that we rely on heavily at
professional meetings in the US It was inspirational to hear many of their professional
war stories of trying to save resources with inadequate funding and political support.
I was in Australia this past September at the Heritage Interpretation International
meeting in Sydney. It was incredible and was held at the Quarantine Station - their Ellis
Island, if you will, overlooking Sydney Harbor. It began with a performance by aboriginal
musicians and dancers and included presentations by Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, New
Zealanders and many others. This happens every 3 years and it also is a chance to measure
how fortunate we are in many ways in the US We have our problems but solutions are within
GSTDKhanna: Tim, you will be pleased to know, we have with us a staffer
from Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, TallPrairy.
Naiexec: TallPrairy - welcome. I was driving down the highway, listening
to National Public Radio when I heard about approval of the Tallgrass Prairie National
Park. What an incredible void we have had in our public lands. One of our most vast
biogeographic region and regions are underrepresented. Your property is very important and
the interpretive stories of the American prairie that have not been properly managed among
our resources. It's tough to tell Panamanians to hang onto rainforest when they look at
our land mass and wonder why we have denuded much of our natural legacy.
Russparks: What is the finest interpretive program in the USA--at a
specific park or visitor center? Why best?
Naiexec: Russparks, that is a very tough question. We have lots of great
interpretive programs. Everglades National Park and Yellowstone have taken very tough
management issues about water resources and fire and have used them as research and
interpretive opportunities. We get lemons, we should make lemonade, and natural disasters
or unnatural mismanagement of resources is an opportunity to help the public understand
how precious and vital clean water, and revitalized ecosystems have been and will be. In
the private sector we have some great interpretive programs that have developed. In Hawaii
on the Big Island, Hawaii Forest and Trails leads tours into native forest and a portion
of the fee goes to the mining company who owns the land to help them keep the native
forest in protection. That's a creative method of using interpretation to help fund
preservation and protection. Many state park systems and county parks are excellent. East
Bay Regional Park District the former home of NPS Director Bill Mott is still one of the
best, a legacy to his good work there and to a very talented staff. Monterey Bay Aquarium
is one of the best interpretive oriented aquaria in the country and they keep getting
I should add a point. Nature centers at the community level are often not flashy examples
of interpretation and environmental education but they do a very good job of keeping urban
dwellers engaged in the study of nature and history.
TallPrairy: In your opinion, what are the keys to being a good
Naiexec: TallPrairy, thanks. That's a great lead for saying that we have
a certification program now in NAI. We think the key to being a good interpreter is more
than just being a skilled communicator. A gift for gab is useful but Freeman Tilden said
something to the effect that interpretation is an art, but any art is to some degree
We want interpreters to read the great books in the field from Tilden's "Interpreting
Our Heritage" to Sam Ham's "Environmental Interpretation." And the
certification process tests their skills. Many of our members were resistant to this.
However, I am seeing a major change as the program develops. Private tour guide operators
who apply find the textbook material challenging. Students just out of college find the 30
minute video of them doing a program to be daunting. The program includes a written
objective exam about principles of the field, the video, a series of essay questions, and
two examples of their work, such as brochures, exhibit designs, program designs, etc. Some
programs are already paying to have their entire staff go through the process. They want
that level of professionalism. They want their interpreters to know the research
foundations for the art they practice. That's got to be good for the profession.
We all come at this with some natural skills and some deficits. This tries to help each
person fill in the weak areas to be more well-rounded. I could have said also that I like
Ham's notion that good interpreters do friendly programs that are relevant to the
audience, that are organized and that deliver thematic messages. We have learned a lot
through the years and need to make sure that new people in the field know the background.
PHorstrans: How many interpreters are in your organizations, and do you
get any kind of funding from the US Government?
Naiexec: PHorstrans, we have 3,600 members and are growing by about 12%
each year. We receive no direct federal subsidies or government subsidies of any kind.
However, many federal agencies partner with us to do specific types of training. As a
professional association, we can bring in the best trainers in the field at less cost
under our nonprofit umbrella and that saves government funds.
GSTDKhanna: Well friends, the scheduled time with our guest is coming to
an end. Please send in your last question or comment now.
Russparks: Is there such a thing as a "Freeman Tilden Interpreter's
Naiexec: Yes, the Freeman Tilden Award that KC DenDooven of KC
Publications has underwritten for so many years is one of our most important awards at the
national workshop. It's a chance to really recognize excellence among the ranks of
front-line and midlevel interpreters and that is important. Working in remote locations,
our professionals often feel like the "Lone Ranger." Award these folks as we
should, and they continue to contribute. Ignore them and some of our best and brightest
leave the field or organization to do other things.
GSTDKhanna: Tim, I wanted to convey the best regards from Paul Pritchard
who couldn't be here with us tonight. He had planned to be here.
Naiexec: Thanks. It has been my pleasure. :)
GSTDKhanna: Our sincere thanks to Tim Merriman for giving us his valuable
time tonight. Hope we will have another opportunity to interact with him online.
Last but not least, we thank every one in the audience for their participation.
Remember, the Keyword on AOL is PARKS
GSTDKhanna: That concludes our session! Good night!