As record numbers of people flock to parks in the wake of the pandemic, those who work there are thinking outside the box to keep them learning, engaged—and coming back.
About a year ago, as the country’s pandemic tolerance was reaching a breaking point. As vaccinations became more widespread, lots of folks came to a similar realization: We need to get out of here.
And by “out,” they meant outside. As a result, national and state parks and historic sites saw a record jump in visitors in 2021. Spring unfolded into summer and campsites and park cabins filled up. Across Georgia, state parks and historic sites were so popular they had to turn away visitors on some weekends, while national parks offered day-of timed ticketing that had guests waking up before dawn to secure a spot.
The crush of visitors was a double-edged sword for managers. On the one hand, the increase in visitors gave them more opportunities to share nature and recreation with a larger swath of the public—that’s a big reason why many go into the field to begin with. But on the other hand, more cars on roads and feet on paths leads to additional maintenance challenges and wear and tear on the parks.
“I got to see the park at its busiest,” says Erin Hadjidakis, who graduated last fall with her master of forest resources focused on parks, recreation and tourism management. She interned at Black Rock Mountain State Park last summer, which allowed her to see every aspect of park management. “So, that helped me see what a busy season really looks like and so I do feel really prepared, going forward.”
The influx of visitors pushed park managers to think outside the box and opened doors to new opportunities. Hadjidakis, who attended most of her graduate program throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced first-hand the transition to virtual learning, says the experience has made her even better prepared to work in the world of parks and recreation.
“It’s interesting being a student who has probably borne a lot of the brunt of the pandemic. Being forced into virtual learning, I feel like it’s given me a really interesting perspective as you move into this natural resources position,” she says. “I think we can reach a younger audience with more virtual programming, and we can reach a wider audience in terms of mileage.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Nationally, 237 million people visited national parks in 2020, a 28% drop from the previous year. Of the 423 parks in the National Park System, 66 were closed for at least two months. Although parks with outdoor spaces remained accessible to the public.
Still, 15 national parks set a new record for visitors in 2020, and five parks broke visitation records set in 2019. National parks in the Southeast continued to be big draws, as the Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System for 2020 and Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most-visited park.
While statistics for 2021 are still being compiled by the National Parks Service, preliminary reports from sites across the country report record numbers for the year. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Canyonlands National Park and Yellowstone National Park are among places reporting record-high turnout for 2021. Even the remote Big Bend National Park in west Texas recorded more than a half-million visitors, a 25% increase since 2019 (and 46% since 2020).
In Georgia, visitation at state parks and historic sites also reached record levels in 2021. But while national parks saw varying declines from 2019 to 2020, many Georgia sites saw the opposite, as attendance went up year over year. Visitors increased 4% from 2019 to 2020, then 20% from 2020 to 2021. Some sites saw a doubling of visitors, such as Vogel, Tugaloo and Panola Mountain state parks.
Black Rock Mountain, where Hadjidakis interned, hosted more than 288,000 visitors in 2021, a jump of almost 60% compared with 2019.
Increased visits also brought more revenue. More residents purchased a ParkPass and campgrounds and cottages were booked solid throughout the year. Together, these two segments alone brought in an additional $3.7 million over fiscal year 2020.
Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, says the pandemic forced a few changes that were already in the works; the increase in visitors hastened the timetable.
“We were already looking at selling ParkPasses online, and the pandemic sped that up,” she says. “When in-person programs were cancelled, our rangers quickly adapted and created a whole series of virtual programs. We’re also making a lot of investments in renovations.” Those renovations were expected, but the increase in use of the facilities sped up that time frame.
TAKING A NEW PATH
As businesses and agencies closed during the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, many national parks workers also found themselves in limbo. Sites closed to visitors, which meant programming, often led by seasonal or temporary employees, was put on hold.
This meant it was a time to regroup for guides like Daniel Kerber (BSFR ’15), who was tasked with leading tours of schoolkids when the initial shutdown began. A seasonal employee with plans to work in Alaska during the summer, he quickly realized he needed a Plan B.
“I was supposed to go to Alaska for the summer of 2020, but my job would have entailed being on a boat with 200 people, and there’s no way my safety or the visitors’ safety could be guaranteed,” he says. “So, I began looking for the next job once things settled down a bit.”
By the end of the year, he’d landed a full-time, permanent position at another national park—Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. For about six months, he and his coworkers worked in quiet visitors centers, wearing masks and talking to visitors through clear partitions.
While the experience was different from pre-pandemic operations, he was thankful for the precautions taken by the National Parks Service, based on CDC mask guidelines, to keep all visitors, volunteers and employees safe. These temporary changes allowed him to continue sharing the park with visitors, which is what drew him to the field to begin with.
“We’re starting to do programs again, very slowly. I’m glad we’re moving toward that, but now it’s been more than a year and a half since I did a formal, in-person program and I’m having to warm myself up again,” he says with a laugh. “We’re leaning toward doing more social media interpretation and more pop-up programs. I would love to do education programs for the schools in the area. And there’s room to do that.”
Kerber’s experiences mirror those of naturalists at some Georgia state parks, where they found themselves moving to online programming and rethinking how to connect with a park audience. Jessica Fangmeyer (BSED ’16), assistant park manager at Chattahoochee Bend State Park, saw naturalists create hashtag campaigns and YouTube videos to keep folks engaged.
“The marketing team and the naturalists who participated—kudos to them,” she says. “Because they couldn’t have groups of people, they did a lot of YouTube tutorials and fun facts of the day to keep people interested.”
It’s also similar to what Hadjidakis learned during her summer internship. While there, she spent time doing every possible job at the park. Her supervisor, park manager Jessica James-Weems (BSED ’04), said during the summer they got the green light to move from virtual to in-person programming, so Hadjidakis was also tasked with creating something for guests.
“She did this phenomenal evening program we called ‘Owl Prowl,’ and we called owls,” says James-Weems, who graduated from UGA with a degree in recreation and leisure studies before it became the parks, recreation and tourism management major in Warnell. “I was an intern at Tallulah Gorge State Park, and that’s why I’m very sensitive to the experience that interns get.”
A SUMMER CRUSH
Communication, says James-Weems, was key to getting through the crush of visitors the past two years. It’s one thing they learned and have continued to push even through the winter months.
“Everybody has a job to do as far as communication goes. We developed videos on what you should be prepared for when you visit a state park, and our Facebook pages were very busy as far as letting people know when we were at capacity,” she says. “With our visitors centers closed, we needed to communicate where to go, how to get firewood, what you should do with your food because we have an active bear population—we did use every facet of our communication so our visitors knew what to do when they got here.”
It’s one thing that will continue into the third season since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fangmeyer’s staff implemented a similar focus on communication. As the park’s campsites filled up during the start of the pandemic, they realized many campers were new—people were working remotely or bought RVs and headed to campgrounds.
In addition to helping visitors learn to park and hook up their new campers, staff implemented a remote check-in process that continues as the pandemic eases.
“Our visitors center never fully closed, but we tried to do everything over the phone. So every morning, we would call every person with a reservation, we’d get them checked in over the phone and we’d make their packets and put them on a hanger on the door so they could grab and go,” she says. “And we still do that to this day because people really liked that they knew what to expect before they came.”
Also, camping and cabin rentals are way up at many parks—bookings are already coming in, months ahead of the typical start to the season. Fangmeyer said her park was almost fully booked over Christmas, which was a first. Meanwhile, the cabins at Black Rock Mountain are undergoing renovations.
Typically, the parks get regulars from the area who reserve the same campsite. That’s not so easy anymore, as campers from farther away are now booking sites months in advance.
Park managers are also seeing the confluence of increased visitors and another trend: looking for the perfect selfie to post on social media. James-Weems began seeing the trend about five years ago when she managed Tallulah Gorge State Park, and her experiences align with recent research by Warnell graduate Justin Beall (MS ’20) and parks, recreation and tourism professors Bynum Boley (BSFR ’06) and Kyle Woosnam. In the study, Beall found people’s motivations to take part in ecotourism were driven not just for socially responsible reasons, but also for good photos to share on social media.
Both James-Weems and Fangmeyer agreed that guests were motivated by social media—either taking photos to post, or visiting because they had seen others posting about the park.
After her internship ended, Hadjidakis continued to help with Black Rock Mountain’s social media. Between her virtual classes at UGA, hearing lectures from professionals across the country who were turning to more virtual and interactive programming, and her own experiences growing up with technology as part of her outdoor experiences, she translates these trends as more opportunities for parks and recreation.
“I feel like, just from hearing from professionals and seeing things happening even within Georgia (Department of Natural Resources), that it’s going to be more technology and more social media and more livestreaming incorporated in environmental interpretation,” she says. “You have to embrace the times in order to keep going—you can’t stay stuck. You have to adapt and flow and be flexible and use the parks to their advantage.”