Exchange of ideas creates greater self-appreciation

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comApril 28, 2013 

Often, when you talk to others about your work, it becomes a lesson in self-awareness.

That’s what happened with Chuck Young, chief ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, after a visit by park rangers and partners from Iceland.

The group of nine Icelanders spent two weeks in March traveling across the United States. The tour, coordinated by the National Park Service Office of International Affairs, included visits to Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks.

The Iceland group included national park managers, officials and rangers, search-and-rescue volunteers and national tourism staffers.

“They were really interested in how we accomplished what they are trying to accomplish, preservation while allowing access,” Young said.

“They came to the park to exchange ideas and learn how we do park management,” said Colin Smith, the chief ranger at Olympic. “The American national parks are seen as the leaders in national parks. Countries with emerging national parks come to this country to see how we do things.”

Among the key topics were protecting natural resources, conducting search-and-rescue operations, funding park operations and educating the public on the parks.

Smith said they held some fairly long discussions about search and rescue. In Iceland, all operations are handled by volunteer groups.

“They also are faced with some of the same questions we are: Should they charge for rescues?” Smith said.

While it makes some sense to charge people, Smith said, the concern is park visitors would not call authorities if they got in trouble.

The concept of law enforcement done by park staffers also was new to the Icelanders. There, it is handled by local authorities.

Another key topic was how the parks generate revenue.

“The managers were really interested in how funding works,” Young said. “We talked about entrance fees, filming fees, wilderness and climbing permits, concession fees.”

Iceland’s park managers are starting to talk about how can they can charge user fees. The issue is how to impose those fees.

Young said 70-80 percent of visitors to Iceland’s parks are foreigners, most arriving thanks to the burgeoning cruise ship industry. While these people are spending plenty of money while in the country, little is making it to the parks system.

“The ships aren’t coming into the parks, but coming into the cities and off loading tens of thousands of people, but the country isn’t tapping into that source of income yet,” Young said. “They load up on buses and then come to the park.”

But finding funds is just one part of the equation, Young said.

“How do you sustain park operations, how do you make those choices on what you are going to fund?” he said.

“They don’t have as clear a mission as we do, although some times that creates conflicts for us. That was one of the things they took home. What is it that they want to do: preservation, economic develop through tourism, develop access.”

As valuable as helping their park brethren was, Young found that he and his staff benefited, too.

“It helps us focus in on what we do and how we can do it better, when you have to explain it to someone coming from a different country, with a different perspective,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s a good grounding moment, to see where other folks are coming from and what they have to deal with,” Smith said. “We have a much bigger scale of resources and infrastructure than many of these other agencies do.”

During a discussion about search and rescue, Smith talked about using contract and military helicopters for assistance.

“They mentioned there are only three helicopters in Iceland,” Smith said.

The exchange also served as a reminder that the Park Service’s past is filled with its own missteps.

“It was kind of fun sharing with a country that is just developing its park system about what has worked and what we have learned from our mistakes,” Young said.

It’s heartening to see our park staffers so willing to share what many call “America’s best idea,” the concept of a national park system.

I find it equally important that our local participants also found a greater appreciation for the resources they do have.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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