Among the most valuable of this country's assets is the system of national parks now comprising 0.017 per cent of the total land owned by the Government. The establishment of these reserves constitutes one of the most important phases of the conservation movement that has characterized our national life during the past 60 years. The people of the United States have seen the wisdom of preserving in national ownership for posterity the conspicuous and unique natural wonderlands of our country.
Complying with the high standards required for the establishment of national parks a remarkable group of reserves has been created for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. These areas are of outstanding value to the Nation because of the permanent inspirational and educational values contained therein. Dr. John C. Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, has defined the use of national parks thus:
To provide each visitor to a national park with an opportunity to interpret and appreciate its superlative features has become the goal of all those interested in the highest use of national parks and has led to the establishment of an educational program to attain this end. In this program there is little that pertains to classrooms, textbooks, or other formal educational methods.
The extensive educational program now found in the national parks was brought about as the result of two factorsthe need of the average visitor for explanations of major features and the desire of the Park Service to find the highest use of national parks. Both led to emphasis on proper interpretation of the features which characterize the parks.
Nearly every person who visits a national park does so either out of curiosity to see some natural wonder or from a desire to interpret and appreciate superlative features. No matter what the motive there is always awakened a desire to have phenomena explained. Contact with real things, with unusual things awakens a desire for explanation, for an increase of knowledge. This awakened craving for knowledge needs to be satisfied when the desire is uppermost.
On the other hand, the National Park Service discovered that in fulfilling its duty to the public the educational and inspirational opportunities must be developed to the fullest and that appreciation of the major features must be actively carried to visitors by means of National Park Service men who have the training to interpret and the enthusiasm to impress the public.
As a result opportunity for improving one's knowledge regarding park features is a stabilized service afforded the public in all major parks. The Park Service feels that a contribution is being made to the enrichment of the lives of the park visitor because opportunities are provided whereby the visitor may learn about his natural environment and the laws of life. It is a program that helps to make education a continuous process, that emphasizes avocational pursuits, that stimulates the proper use of leisure time.
The exceptional opportunities for outdoor education available in the national parks are being recognized more and more by scientists and educators throughout the country. Each season numerous college and university classes, science clubs, and nature organizations visit the parks and study the superlative exhibits of geology, biology, history, and archeology. These trips are encouraged by the Service and every effort is made to assure these groups a worth-while program.
In addition to this educational use there has grown up an actual educational program. Four years after the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, field trips and lecture programs were offered free to all visitors to Yosemite National Park. This small beginning, first supported by individuals keenly interested in the educational possibilities of the parks, has grown until now there is a complete field trip, lecture, museum, and research program in all major national parks of the country. The history of this educational movement from the conception of the idea to the establishment of the Branch of Research and Education is told in a later chapter. A discussion of accomplishments is to be considered first.
In the development of the enlarged program of educational activities several main general policies have been followed. Important among these are the following:
Never has there been an idea of making the educational work of purely academic character. Rather has emphasis been placed on a plan to make the work fit the outstanding opportunitythat of stressing first-hand information. Furthermore, the program had to be developed to fit the average park visitor. Lectures and exhibits play their part, but enthusiastic leadership by a nature guide who takes parties afield to study special features is the educational contribution that is unique. The universities may afford better classroom work, better library facilities, and better lectures, but it is believed that nowhere can people find better objective materials for study or receive better training in interpreting phenomena than is afforded when the studdent is in direct contact with nature out of doors.
There is hope that new methods in adult education will be discovered, and that the national parks will become the great universities of the out-of-doors for which their superlative scientific exhibits so finely equip them.