Do National Parks Matter to Millennials?

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As a college student with an on-again, off-again connection with nature, I recently wondered: Is having a relationship with the outdoors still relevant to people my age?

To many people, the college experience typically brings to mind memories of tailgate parties, crowded dorm rooms, and questionable dining hall food. You may not think about a connection with nature in college—especially at urban universities like the one I attend.

I grew up in southern California, where I regularly went on hiking trips and camped with my family at nearby Dana Point, San Clemente, and Palomar Mountain State Parks. In 2004, I traveled with my parents across the United States in an RV for a year to relocate from California to Maryland, making our way through the Southwest, the Gulf Coast, the Florida coast, and the Mid-Atlantic States. Along the way I had an up-close and personal encounter with nature and America’s great natural landscapes, including the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Gulf Island National Seashore, and Everglades National Park. In Florida, my family spent five months volunteering as state park rangers at Lovers Key State Park, learning about the local vegetation and wildlife, including the endangered sea turtle population. We finally settled down in western Maryland near the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, surrounded by the Potomac and Shenandoah landscapes.

Years later, I found myself at a university in the middle of Washington, D.C., surrounded by buildings instead of forests. While I consider D.C. to be a “nature-friendly” urban landscape, I was interested in how my fellow students perceived the outdoors. I conducted an informational, non-scientific survey to learn about their views and experiences visiting the parks, their perception of the parks in today’s political and economic atmosphere, and their general connection to nature.

Although the sample size was very small and the survey results provided me with differing opinions, it also provided interesting insights into some of the obstacles keeping university students from visiting America’s national parks. Among the 16 George Washington University students that I surveyed:

  • All but one have visited national parks; less than half visit one to five times a year.
  • Those who reported that they regularly visit our national parks go with family (75%) and friends (89%).
  • Some of the biggest deterrents for students visiting parks are lack of time, distance, and budget constraints.
  • While less than half considered going to a national park on spring break, a majority thought national parks are “important” or “worth mentioning” in today’s economic and political atmosphere.
  • Most have heard of Earth Day, but do not participate. Only one-quarter actively volunteer or attend Earth Day events.
  • Three out of four had never heard of NPCA before taking the survey.

As a Millennial, I can say that while we are a unique and stubborn generation, we also often go out of our way to make a difference in everything we do.  So how can the National Park Service and NPCA find ways to engage the next generation with national parks? NPCA recognizes the need to bring fresh new perspectives into this ongoing discussion, yet engaging younger and more diverse people is a difficult task.

As a step toward cultivating and incorporating our perspective, NPCA has created a Future Leaders Council, tapping 12 of the best and brightest young leaders. The goal of the council is to explore new ways NPCA can involve younger people in national park advocacy. It will recommend projects and initiatives that build upon NPCA’s long history of park protection while keeping in mind ways to engage younger and more diverse audiences.  This is only one example of how organizations like NPCA are actively involving younger people in park protection, and I hope that this can be the first in many big steps toward engaging my generation in a new way.

About the Author

Josephine Hill is media relations intern for NPCA.