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Special Live Chats on AOL


Tuesday, June 22, 1999 (9 PM ET)

"Interpretation in Parks"
A Live Chat on AOL

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Guest:Tim Merriman, Executive Director
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 us.

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 Ex. Dir?

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 Interpreters Workshop.

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 pace.

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 monthly newsletter?

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 our grasp.

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 better.

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 interpreter?

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 teachable.

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 Award"?

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!


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