Volume V - No. 6
NATURALIST PROGRAMS IN AMERICA
A Preliminary Analysis of a National Survey
BY R. C. ROBINSON,
With the vast increase in opportunities for outdoor recreation made possible by the rapid expansion of non-urban parks and with improved facilities for travel, the countryside and wilderness have become accessible to most of our people. That large numbers of them are taking advantage of these opportunities is evidenced by the fact that attendance at parks has tripled and quadrupled during the last few years.
Most of the newcomers are rank strangers to the natural environment. Records of Park use show that more than 90 per cent of them confine their visits to picnicking and bathing areas and that they participate almost exclusively in activities familiar to the city playground, playfield, and park. Few of them venture out on trails. To most of them, nature is like a book written in a foreign language.
Use of the sort described tends to defeat the primary purpose for which parks have been established, which is that of providing people with an opportunity to enjoy nature's beauties and to satisfy human curiosity concerning the world in which we live.
How to bring about a better use of non-urban parks presents, then, a problem which deserves the fullest consideration. It requires the same careful study and planning that has gone into the selection, planning, and development of such areas. Visitors' eyes must be opened to nature's handiwork and their appreciation of its beauty sharpened. This requires a program of interpretation, variously referred to as nature study, nature appreciation and more lately, nature recreation. The naturalist service in national parks exemplifies this type of program, but at best it reaches a relatively small number of the total annual park users, and the visitors come once or twice and stay only a few days at the most before returning to their homes, most of which are several hundred miles away. No matter how well the National Park naturalists do their job, they can not meet the total public need for the type of service they are rendering. The program of interpretation needs to be carried down through state, metropolitan, county, and city parks into the neighborhoods where it can touch people's daily living from childhood to old age. The realization of a program so ambitious in scope requires, as mentioned before, careful planning followed by energetic and persistent action over a long period of years.
Planning necessarily starts with a study of the existing situation. What do we have now? What do we need? What are our resources? How can we utilize these re sources to accomplish our objectives? These are the "a, b, c's" of planning. To accomplish the first of these steps, to find out what we have now, a nation-wide survey of naturalist programs was undertaken. While its results may be incomplete in minor respects, it does give an excellent résumé of the scope of nature activities now being conducted throughout the country and the contributions being made by the wide range of participating agencies and clubs.
From the several hundred forms distributed, 167 replies were received. Of this number, only 77 agencies were found to render public naturalist services adequate in scope to warrant detailed consideration. Of the remaining 90 forms returned, 22 reported no program, 17 were from schools and colleges and included only scholastic activities, while 51 were rejected because the programs were either insignificant or were not of a public character. Of the 77 agency programs analyzed, 54 were supported by public funds and 19 by private funds. Supervisory authority included federal, state, and local park and recreational agencies, museums of natural history, sanctuaries, botanical gardens, nature centers, garden clubs, nature clubs and societies, a hotel and a hospital for people suffering with nervous disorders. Thirty-three states and the Territory of Hawaii were represented.
Principal types of areas or centers used for nature activities included 114 parks and recreational areas, 33 museums, 126 playgrounds, 3 sanctuaries, 1 botanical garden, and the grounds of a hospital and a hotel. In six instances, the open countryside was the exclusive area of operation.
Fifty-two of the programs operated the year around, while 25 were confined to the summer months.
Seventy-two agency programs were being conducted under paid leadership, while five were instrumented through volunteers from cooperating schools, colleges and other educational institutions. Altogether, there were 123 full-time and 206 part-time naturalists employed.
Eighty-nine museums were reported by 53 agencies, while 48 agencies listed 137 nature trails in use. There were 14 field laboratories in operation by 12 agencies. Nineteen programs reported 123 trailside exhibits and 2,328 trail signs in use.
Twenty-eight programs sponsored 233 nature interest clubs with a total membership of more than 118,000. Twenty-two agencies published literature regularly, 22 others occasionally and 4 issued both regular and occasional publications. The mailing list of the 20 agencies reporting this item included 69,000 persons.
More than 6,000,000 participants were recorded by the 59 agencies listing attendance at museums, nature trails, lectures, guided trips and field trips to distant points. Of this number, two and a half million (in round figures) visited museums; 2,114,000 attended the 14,239 lectures reported and a half-million hiked over nature trails. Better than 19,000 made field trips to distant points.
While lectures and guided trips dealt with a comprehensive group of subjects, geology, plants, birds, and mammals, in the order listed, were by far the more important from the standpoint of number of lectures and attendance. That human history is being given considerable emphasis, however, is indicated by the fact that history, archeology, and ethnology were subjects of more than 4,000 lectures and 6,500 guided trips.
However dry this recital of figures, it provides a general idea of the scope of public naturalist programs now being carried out in the nation. To follow up, it appears appropriate to review briefly the activities of the various types of agencies offering naturalist services. Let us begin with those closest to where the people live, those that have their roots in the neighborhood and home, and proceed from there to the program of the National Park Service.
Probably the closest of all public organizations to the daily recreational lives of the people are those groups, societies, and associations that people form to make possible the satisfaction of common interests. They include such organizations as garden clubs, Audubon Societies, nature clubs, and natural history associations. Returns in the nation-wide survey included 20 agencies of this sort but only 11 offered what appeared to be public naturalist services. The programs offered by 9 of these 11 were under the direction of paid naturalists with 17 full-time and 12 part-time leaders conducting regular schedules of lectures and field trips and supervising museums and nature trails. The other two agencies carried out fairly comprehensive programs with volunteers from schools, colleges, and their own membership. Subjects covered were confined largely to natural sciences with the principal emphasis being placed on plants and birds. Eight clubs operated ten nature museums, while five provided nine nature trails. A few of the clubs used parks and the countryside for their hikes and lectures.
A check with studies made by the National Recreation Association reveals (1) that there are literally thousands of recreational interest groups in the nation of the type discussed above, most of them functioning through volunteer leaders, and (2) that a majority of then sponsor outdoor forms of recreation that are closely related to the natural environment. In most cases, such groups are in need of facilities which afford them richer and wider opportunities. They also need the guidance of trained leaders. The closeby non-urban recreational area, such as the local or state park, can instrument both these needs; and by doing so, it can extend its influence far beyond its boundaries. Such groups can become the roots through which its program of use can grow and become exceedingly rich in content.
The significant fact revealed by returns from four museums of natural history was the extent to which institutions of this sort are turning to the out-of-doors in carrying out their educational and recreational programs. Every one of the agencies reporting conducted field trips and sponsored a wide range of groups interested in such subjects as botany, geology, birds, archeology, and photography. Two museums offered leadership training courses in natural sciences. Through this sponsorship of interest groups functioning largely under the guidance of their own leadership, and through training courses for volunteer leaders, the natural science museum is becoming a valuable community recreation center and at the same time improving its educational services.
The local park and recreation system with its neighborhood playgrounds, its city and outlying parks, offers a splendid medium for integrating nature into the daily recreational lives of the people. Because of this fine opportunity, the fact that reports were received from only 20 metropolitan districts, counties and cities was a disappointment. It was felt there must be many other public nature programs offered by minor civil divisions, but upon a close check against the 1935 report of Municipal and County Parks in the United States, it was found that, while many urban centers reported nature trails, zoological parks, arboreta, and wilderness areas, very few, probably no more than 25, offered interpretive leadership.
A glance at the results accomplished by the 20 agencies included in our survey reveals the possibilities of nature programs when offered close enough to people's homes for frequent participation. The 24 full-time and 23 part-time naturalists employed by these agencies reached directly an aggregate of more than a half-million persons through lectures, museums, and guided trips. If all urban centers, counties and metropolitan districts operating park and recreation programs offered naturalist services that reached the same average number of persons per system, the annual total participation would approach 27,000,000 for this group of agencies alone, and when it is considered that the local recreation system is in a position to reach all age groups frequently enough to arouse, sustain, and satisfy interest in nature throughout a life time, its importance in this aspect of the nation's recreational program is emphasized further.
While its areas are not quite so close to the people as are those of the municipality, county and metropolitan district, the state park system, if planned with an eye to the distribution of a state's population, can fit its program nicely into gaps left by its minor civil divisions. Primarily the state can and does provide the large, wilderness type of park beyond the financial reach of the average local government agency. It has a wider chose of natural resources and, for this reason, can better round out the ecological pattern of the state and its physiographic regions. Yet its areas are generally close enough to the population for that frequency of participation necessary to sustain interest in nature study, nature arts and crafts, and other activities which make a recreational use of natural resources.
That states are beginning to recognize these values in their parks is indicated by the rapid expansion of interpretive programs on state parks during the last few years. Before 1938, only four state park systems employed naturalists. Now 15 offer, under leadership, nature activities as a part of the park's public service. It should be added, however, that five of the above listed programs are financed wholly or in part by WPA. In Region One of the National Park Service (23 states east of the Mississippi River), at least two additional states expect to employ one or more naturalists in 1941, while five of the six now providing such services expect to expand them materially.
In content, the nature programs now being offered on state parks include both natural and human sciences, with the greater emphasis being placed on plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, and geology. Seven of the agencies included history, three archeology, and two ethnology. All techniques of presenting the interpretive program were enployed. Twelve state agencies operated 33 museums, 11 provided nature trails, all of them offered lectures and all but 2 conducted guided trips, while 4 conducted field trips to distant points. Five issued literature regularly and 4 occasionally. Altogether, more than a million state park visitors participated in nature recreation.
While it is believed that an encouraging start toward a well rounded interpretive program has been made among state park systems, it should be noted that only 50 of the 891 state parks and recreational areas now in operation provided leadership during 1940. No doubt some of these parks are too far removed from population centers and too poorly used by vacationists to warrant naturalist services, but by far the majority of them are so situated as to make them ideally suited for nature programs.
To illustrate, the Swift Creek Recreational Demonstration Area, near Richmond, Virginia, offers a typical state park situation both as to resources and proximity to population. A nature program was started in 1938. During the year from September 1, 1939, through August 31, 1940, more than 37,000 visitors engaged in one or more features of the program. Every grade school class in the county in which the area is situated was brought by school buses to the museum, craft shop, and trails for natural science activities; community houses, youth agencies and recreation departments brought numerous groups at regular intervals. Many parents who came first to bring their children have become interested participants themselves. Thus the family is being drawn into the program which includes the following among its activities: lectures, guided trips, bird feeding, conservation, nature crafts, basketry, pottery, wood and rustic craft, leaf printing, weaving, and braiding of natural materials.
The results just described were accomplished with WPA leaders from the security wage list who had to get their experience and training on the job. Think what might have been accomplished had there been a well trained naturalist to plan and promote the program. What has been done at Swift Creek can be equalled or surpassed in probably a majority of the 891 state parks in operation. And state park officials are becoming interested. The Virginia Conservation Commissioner cooperated in launching the Virginia Institute of Natural History because, he said "I am looking forward to the day when I can have a trained naturalist in every one of my parks, and I want this institute to train them for me." It will be only a matter of time until there are 48 instead of 15 state park departments offering naturalist services to those who visit their parks.
From the above résumé of local and state park programs it may be seen readily how the situation obtaining in the nearby, relatively small recreational area differs from that presented by a national park where most visitors are travelers who have come for their first and possibly even their only time to stay a few hours or at best a few days. Those national areas have a much vaster story to tell and very little time in which to tell it to those who listen. Their naturalists can arouse latent curiosity but they meet special difficulties in the attempt to sustain and carry it forward by the methods which may be followed by the naturalist in a park near its public. Moreover, most of the visitors possess only a limited knowledge of natural forces while a large number of those who make up attendance at local park museums and trails are enthusiastic nature students and many may even be classed as amateur naturalists.
It is vastly important here, however, to warn against any under-evaluation of the pioneer service which has been and is being rendered by national park naturalists. It is they who have blazed the trail which state and local recreational agencies are following. They have been the teachers and demonstrators, and, if quantity has not been a practical component of the program, quality has ever been a vital compensation. The techniques that they have developed for presenting nature's amazing-story to an inquisitive public have been adapted to the different situation presented by the local park.
During 1939, according to records submitted, they reached five and a half million visitors through museums, nature trails, lectures, and guided trips. Geology was the subject given greatest emphasis from the standpoint of lectures and exhibits, but most naturalists covered all the 12 subjects listed on the report form. Three issued regular publications while 12 got out nature literature occasionally. Five reported a distribution of 22,000 copies. Two reported leadership training, but only one, Yosemite, conducted an extended training camp.
In connection with leadership training, it is of interest to know that 25 of the 77 agencies whose programs were summarized offered one or more leaders' training courses during 1939. Five forms not included in the summary were received from agencies conducting nature leaders' training camps for periods of from two to six weeks, while a number of colleges that sent in forms (also not summarized) conduct summer camps for advance science students. The April 1940 issue of Recreation listed 16 such training camps that now operate annually, and this list did not include the Virginia Natural History Institute course which was started last summer at our Swift Creek Recreational Demonstration Area. Such training camps should assist materially in providing leadership for the rapidly expanding naturalist program since the continued success of the program depends in large part on the abilities of those who guide it.
Although public schools and colleges were excluded from this survey, 15 forms were received from educational institutions and a few sample studies were made of natural science activities in the educational systems of larger cities. From these studies, it appears evident that scholastic methods are tending more and more toward the use of living nature as laboratory material. Grade schools are doing much the best job in this connection, since they are reaching all their students; whereas, high schools and colleges reach only those actively interested. This is unfortunate in view of the importance of adolescence and part adolescence in the formation of life interests and habits. But the trend is in the right direction. In a number of southern states serious consideration is being given to the establishment of conservation areas as a part of consolidated school plants, such areas to be used by students for both class work and play and by the communities as recreational centers.
While it is true that at present there are relatively few agencies actively sponsoring nature recreation -- when compared to the number of sports organizations, for example -- it is encouraging to note the wide range represented by those agencies that do. They reach all age groups and make possible a rich combination of recreational pursuits: hiking clubs trying to see and understand what lies along the trails they follow; garden clubs extending their activities to include public education on the natural world; youth agencies using nature as an instrument for teaching reverence for the world and its creatures; schools going out-of-doors to let the student learn from nature's laboratory instead of from a dusty dead one created by man within four confining walls; resort hotels beginning to offer their guests an opportunity to get away occasionally from the dance floor, the bar, the bridge table, the competitive sports area, or to trails where they may exercise a long dormant curiosity concerning the world in which they live; museums, once thought of in the same category as mausoleums because all they housed were the cold dead things of nature, becoming headquarters for groups that go out where vivid life is to be found in all its natural glory; city playgrounds turning more and more to the stimulation and direction of the child's innate curiosity concerning the strange and beguiling nature of a tree, a butterfly, the frog that hops across its path; conservation agencies teaching instead of preaching conservation; park departments, city, state and national, seeking to interpret to a public largely strange to the out-of-doors the natural wonders and the artifacts of human history, so carefully and scrupulously set aside and preserved for it.
All these various agencies and groups stepping out tentatively into this great, new leisure time field - few now but potentially adding up to an aggregate of thousands - offer the instruments for forging a national program. They fit nicely together. The school, the playground, the garden club, the hiking club and youth agency have their roots sunk deep into the home and the neighborhood where dormant curiosity can be aroused, sharpened, given initial direction; the city, county, metropolitan, and, in many cases the state, park lies close by to accommodate expanding interest, to diversify and satisfy the interest, while for the increasing millions able to get to it, the national park in all its rich and varied beauty offers the climax to the amazing story of creation which was begun back on the neighborhood playground and school yard.
Sounds like a pipe dream, doesn't it, to think that some day nature may share a large part of the increasing leisure of the American public, along with moving pictures, the radio, the automobile speeding down a road hedged in by billboards, the nation's sports fields, the hot dog stand, and juke joint?
The democracy we are arming ourselves so feverishly to defend was also once a pipe dream, as were skyscrapers, talking machines, moving pictures, and television. Is it unreasonable, then, to predict that the masses of mankind will one day rediscover that they, like the trees, the flowers, the crops they grow, have their roots in the earth, that once again they will understand the proverb that dust returneth to dust?
(Adapted from an address at the National Park Service Naturalist Conference, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, November 13.)
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