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Creating a catalyst for stewardship

by Elizabeth D. Baldwin, Ph.D.

Creating A Catalyst for Stewardship - Clemson University College of Health, Education, and Human DevelopmentIn 1872, Yellowstone National Park began what Wallace Stegner described as America’s greatest idea. Today, according to the World Commission on Protected Areas, there are more than 108,000 parks/protected areas worldwide covering an area the size of China and India combined. These areas are essential to the overall health and quality of life for people and the environment.

Because of an incredible range of goals, parks bring together a diverse group of managers, researchers, policymakers, environmental leaders, educators and the public in a very special way. Currently, there is no publicly accessible or centralized catalog of materials held by parks, and there is no clear or easy way for managers to connect with other managers or park researchers to solve problems or direct research. Since 2007, an interdisciplinary team led by the University’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM) has been working on a vision and a plan to connect these scattered park researchers, managers and supporters into a cohesive network called the Open Parks Grid (OPG). The goal has been to answer the following question: How can we use technology to help ensure the long-term health and sustainability of park resources and the possibility of protecting more resources, and to begin to look at the large-scale network of parks across the landscape as one seamless system of parks where the sharing of information is second nature?

The College of HEHD departments and programs have been working to promote 21st century skills that include working through cross-disciplinary collaboration, becoming agents of change and learning to think creatively about our professions in the changing global economy. It is no surprise that HEHD Dean Larry Allen and PRTM chair Brett Wright were part of the conversation that created this concept. Clemson Provost Doris Helms first coined the phrase Open Parks Grid at a meeting among park professionals and University administrators hosted by George B. Hartzog Jr., former director of the National Park Service (NPS), at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2007.

Over the past three years, a Clemson interdisciplinary team has crafted a working vision and a prototype for the OPG. The team includes the University’s PRTM department, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, School of Computing, Clemson Libraries and a world-renowned team from Clemson Computing and Information Technology, as well as Purdue University’s HUBZero Consortium. Clemson is also fortunate to have Fran Mainella, former NPS director, as a visiting scholar and serving as an integral part of this project. The NPS was our essential first partner because of the organization’s role as the manager of the first national parks in the world and because of their leadership in the parks community and commitment to science and the public.

Creating A Catalyst for Stewardship - Clemson University College of Health, Education, and Human DevelopmentWe’ve been able to present to and get feedback from five former NPS directors, two regional directors and many other top NPS officials with the goal of determining the role of the NPS as the leading partner to begin work on this Southeastern comprehensive vision. At a March 2009 conference led by NPS Southeastern region director David Vela, a need was expressed for creating a repository of information currently not accessible and for developing a professional network concerning parks.

Each park has its own library and artifacts stored locally, primarily in a nondigital format. Access to social networking sites of any kind is blocked on the NPS network. As a result, there is frequent duplication of effort in parks, incomplete data on land use and climate change, an inability of park managers to share information and barriers for both park researchers and those managing other adjacent conservation lands, as well as lack of access for citizens who need to search for important park information.

The NPS and Clemson have partnered to sign a Memorandum of Understanding and agreed to use the parks in the region to begin building the OPG. Work has begun with Congaree National Park, Cowpens National Battlefield, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Augusta Canal National Heritage Area. Clemson PRTM faculty have also approached other nonfederal Southeastern parks and protected resources partners that hold park-related resources, artifacts and libraries, and these organizations were eager to participate and share their resources in the hopes of being linked to the larger parks community.

The OPG has the potential to create avenues for researchers to address many of the complex problems that require networking across multiple scales and jurisdictions, problems such as large
natural disasters, climate change, traditional cultural resource use, habitat protection, loss of biodiversity and decentralized park management, to name only a few. Parks and protected areas of all scales provide vast resources in terms of research arenas and educational opportunities.

Parks are our national and state treasures. As such, citizens, regardless of ability to travel to a particular park, can benefit from access to information about the history and collections. These collections include herbarium and fauna data, old photos of landscapes or people living on the site, drawings from landscape designers on intent of trail and roadway design, construction plans for buildings of historic significance, internal research reports and park artwork, to name only a few of the resources that are challenging to find.

It is our turn to take the reins of responsible stewardship so clearly echoed in the words of the late George B. Hartzog Jr., NPS director from 1964 to 1972, and expand it to meet the global challenges of all parks: “The national park idea has been nurtured by each succeeding generation of Americans. Today, across our land, the National Park System represents America at its best. Each park contributes to a deeper understanding of the history of the United States and our way of life, of the natural processes which have given form to our land and to the enrichment of the environment in which we live.”