NPS pursues partnerships to boost international, digital presence

Most don’t consider a 100th birthday as prime time for turning over a new leaf. But the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial by working toward a new era.

Johnathan Jarvis, director of NPS, laid out just a few ways his agency is achieving that goal on week four of Agency of the Month, featuring the National Park Service for the month of August. Some of those ways include going international, embracing digital culture and exploring new ways of fundraising and promoting itself.

Jarvis said that NPS has been working with Brand USA, the international marketing aspect of the Department of Commerce, to promote the national parks as an international destination.

“Internationally, it has all sorts of economic benefits for the nation, and it shows off who we are as American citizens,” Jarvis said.


The agency is also looking to partnerships with the private sector to help promote itself and its message both internationally and right here at home.

“One misunderstanding is that the National Park Service has been working with corporate America since 1916,” Jarvis said. “The railroad industry built many of the major lodges that we today hold in such high esteem like El Tovar and Old Faithful Inn.”

Jarvis also pointed to the advertising campaign from NPS’s 50th anniversary, which encouraged the American people to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” That came from a partnership, Jarvis said, with the automotive industry and with AAA.

“Corporate sponsorship is nothing new to the park service,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is write policies that modernize our relationship to ensure that we’re not renaming a park or saying ‘Yosemite, brought to you by … ‘ or anything like that. We’re not crossing that line.”

Instead, he described NPS’ relationship with David Rubenstein, philanthropist and CEO of the Carlyle group, as a model for how NPS interacts with and recognizes major donors. Rubenstein has helped to financially fund restoration efforts on the Washington Monument, Lincoln Monument, Iwo Jima Memorial and numerous others.

NPS has recognized the contributions online, Jarvis said, as well as through temporary exhibits and public events, but it would never go so far as renaming any part of a national park.

“Naming things [after a sponsor or donor] that are in the face of the American people in a national park is a little bit offensive,” he said. “It’s sort of claiming ownership of something that belongs to everyone. I think the public would object to that.”

Instead, he wants to work with the private sector to sponsor things like outreach to children, such as school trips to the parks.

And there’s no shortage of people and companies willing to contribute. Jarvis said NPS’ centennial fundraising campaign is “well on its way to $350 million,” and the number of volunteers has jumped from 250,000 prior to the campaign to more than 400,000 after.

Jarvis said he also wants to work with companies that occupy the digital space to create a new digital strategy for NPS. While the parks themselves are “content rich,” Jarvis said his agency doesn’t do enough to deliver that content through newer mediums to reach a different audience.

“We’re not very good at supplying that content via today’s apps and other digital media,” he said. “We need the private sector to do that for us and step up and begin to build on this content that we have and deepen the public’s experience through digital access.”

The first step on that path is increased connectivity in the parks themselves, within certain limitations.

For example, NPS is providing wireless connections on the north rim of the Grand Canyon now. The south rim is next, Jarvis said. Still, he said not to expect any connection at the bottom of the canyon.

“You’re just going to have to disconnect for a few days. It might be good for you,” he said.

But he believes that it’s reasonable to expect connectivity in certain places, like the Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon’s rim. But don’t look for cellphone towers to start popping up in national parks.

NPS managed to bring connections to the north rim of the Grand Canyon by mounting a series of dishes, roughly the size of a dinner plate, under the eaves of the buildings. Jarvis said this strategy accomplished its goal without adversely affecting the view, which is largely the point of NPS’ mission.

“We are to preserve these extraordinary places,” Jarvis said. “We have a responsibility to tell America’s story through place.”

The agency’s centennial celebration has been somewhat marred by recent reports of sexual harassment and a lack of accountability at the management level.

“These recent revelations coming from investigations by the IG around sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon and some other parks are incredibly disturbing to me and the senior leadership of the park service,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and the other leadership have responded by changing management at the Grand Canyon, including instating the park’s first female superintendent.

In addition, NPS has engaged with other agencies, like the Department of Defense, to find out how they’ve handled similar issues. They’re also working on installing a hotline for employees to report issues, and a strategy for responding, including ensuring that action is taken and victims are supported.