NPS working on first long-range interpretive plan

A joint public/government process to develop a long-range interpretive plan for the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is nearing completion following initial meetings in March and follow-up sessions in October.

South District Interpretive Ranger Valerie Newman said the contractor hired by the National Park Service – Pond I Ecos Co. of Atlanta – will soon produce a draft plan for the Park Service to review after working with local Bighorn Canyon staff members, reviewing plans and documents and holding public meetings for local input.

Newman said the first hurdle was getting the local park to recognize the need for a long-range plan, which would be the first of its type for the national recreation area. She said former Chief of Interpretation Chris Wilkinson got the process rolling after Supt. Jerry Case saw the need for the plan and initiated the process.

The process is valuable, Newman said, because it outlines the main themes of the park. This not only helps the interpretive rangers as they develop programs, it also ties into the media the park staff produce such as web-based information and printed items like brochures, site bulletins and wayside exhibits. It also helps the various arms of the Park Service work together better, she said.

“The long-range interpretive plan helps the other divisions like Cultural Resources and Natural Resources to funnel new and current information to the interpretive division,” Newman said. “A lot of the stuff these divisions are doing with research in the park helps us streamline and focus on what’s important – to present more thematic-based information to the community and the public. There’s so much information it’s overwhelming to the public.”

After a site visit and meetings with the staff by Pond I Ecos Co., the first public meeting was held in March – the Foundations Meeting. At this stage, Newman said, the contractor gets “the meat” of what the park is all about and gathers all material, documents, plans, archaeological history and more, then meets with the staff and the public to gain an understanding of what the staff and the community feel is important.

After digesting that information, the contractor in July produced the foundation draft of the long-range interpretive plan and sent it to stakeholders in August. The introduction was entitled “The Grandest Canyon of the Northern Rockies.”

“Several people went through it,” Newman said of the initial document, “to see if they missed the ball or whether it was OK. We looked to see if it was a fair and balanced representation of all of the stakeholders’ suggestions.

“I’ve been looking for more thematic-based programs that will allow the visitor to experience the park at both an intellectual and emotional level and appeal to a broad audience.”

The contractor and Park Service then held a recommendations meeting on Oct. 18 during which members of the public had a chance to review the Foundations document and make further suggestions.

The morning was dedicated to reviewing the recommendations and conclusions reached in March. The document contained six primary interpretive themes and a number of sub-themes, plus “sample” storylines for future interpretation.

The afternoon session included further work in four more areas, Newman said:

1) Identifying locations where themes from the plan are best suited, for instance early settlers at historic ranches.

2) Determining service-visitor links through exercises in the areas of existing personal services and non-personal services like film, books and other publications. The process explored potential personal and non-personal services.

“There wasn’t a lot of new information presented,” Newman said. “People felt the programs and media are doing well. The biggest thing we heard was ‘promotion, promotion, promotion. How do we get people to know about the park.?’”

3) Exploring opportunities for partnerships by first identifying existing partnerships with entities like the Friends of Bighorn Lake, the chamber of commerce, the U.S. Forest Service and the like, then exploring ways to work together even more.

“A lot of it comes down to the staffing we have,” Newman said.

4) Wayside exhibits – needs, locations and topics.

The contractor will soon send a draft of the final interpretive plan for final review, Newman said. The park will have the opportunity to make final suggestions and changes if need be, she said.

Newman said meeting facilitators Shannon Kettering and Faye Goolrick were impressed with the involvement of the community in the planning process.

“This was some of the best information and input they’ve had,” Newman said. “They went away feeling they had the tools from the stakeholders to produce a product everybody would be happy with. They felt it was a really productive meeting.”

Asked what she personally took away from the meetings, Newman said, “I heard in the meetings and have seen in person that our visitors want to see rangers and programs offered such as guided tours and campfire programs, living history and more programs. I heard ‘podcasts’ a lot…We need more waysides and pullovers so people can read about what they’re looking at.

“All of the storylines can have a program or a site bulletin – a way for us to get that story to the public.”

By David Peck