Park Pro

Kurt Repanshek, author of a web ‘zine about national parks, dishes on the state of our natural gems.

By Susan Cosier

If you ever want to know what’s going on in America’s national parks, look no further than the web magazine National Parks Traveler. Kurt Rapanshek, a guidebook author and freelance journalist who writes for Audubon, Hemispheres, and the North Face’s web ‘zine, originally started the site as a blog in 2005. In June, he joined forces with fellow blogger Jeremy Sullivan to expand the site, which now offers video casts and podcasts, as well as the latest news affecting the national parks. Plenty caught up with Repanshek to discuss the reason he blogs about our national treasures, why the Department of the Interior finds his site so interesting, and what issues the parks face today.

What made you decide to cover national parks?

When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, we always had National Geographic come to the house every month. One of the earliest stories I remember reading was about this guy in Yellowstone who would spend his winter shoveling the snow off of cabin roofs and lodge roofs so they wouldn’t collapse under the weight. I just thought that was so cool. That opened the door to Yellowstone, which was, for a kid in New Jersey, a far-off magical land. I have a natural affinity for the national parks because I just think that they’re wonderful, special places.

Why do you think it’s important to have a blog about national parks?

It heightens people’s awareness. With the funding situation for the National Park Service, parks are having to resort to leasing out facilities. At Fort Hancock in Gateway National Recreation Area, they’re leasing out about 30 historic buildings for 60 years to a developer who’s going to turn them into restaurants and bed and breakfasts. I mean, is that an appropriate function of a national park? I understand there is a need to somehow maintain these facilities, but isn’t that the country’s responsibility as a whole? When you start leasing off pieces of the national park system, you are, in effect, creating boundaries as to who can experience those sites. It’s just disconcerting and I would like to see a national dialogue conducted about it. The Traveler is a small effort in that goal, but someone has to raise the question.

Why do you think so many people who work in the Department of the Interior read your posts?

Headquarters in Washington wants to know what’s being said and written about the national parks. I know the chief of communications in Washington will make copies of some of the posts from time to time and circulate them around both the Washington headquarters and even around the entire parks system. Also, I get the sense that there is a large viewership of active rangers who share our concern for how the parks are being managed. Some have contacted us privately to say, “Hey you may want to look into this or you might want to look into that.” It kind of serves as a watchdog service for some of the rangers who don’t have a way to get this information out because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

What do you think is the biggest issue the parks currently face?

The funding situation. Everything falls from that. If the parks and the parks service were properly funded, we wouldn’t have the leasing situation going on as it is. And we wouldn’t have an $8 billion backlog in maintenance needs across the park system.

Are there other problems that come to mind?

There’s a concern about visitation. The people I hear voicing that concern most are the people who make money off the parks—the developers and the recreation industry. You don’t hear the National Parks Conservation Association, or the Wilderness Society, or the Sierra Club saying we don’t have enough people in the parks. Last year 270 million people visited the national parks. That’s more than the combined attendance of the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Visitation is going to ebb and flow. That’s only natural.

What else do you see for your site going forward?

We’re going to create a page for every park. That will be a great resource, and a great way to track issues in a specific national park. We’re also going to create a photo gallery and make it possible for viewers to contribute their own photos. The National Parks Traveler is just the first step in developing a true outreach and education tool for the national parks system.

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Wonderful to hear how tech is helping to heighten awareness of our national parks. Hurray to Mr. Rapanshek, and to you, Susan, for bringing it to our attention.

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