The national symbols people choose to preserve—the visible reminders of how a nation came to be what it is—serve as useful keys to understanding values. Societies, after all, choose to protect the objects and emblems of their collective pride. Robin Winks
Parks can serve to remind us of some of the more challenging times in our history. In the 1990s, parks were added to the system to reflect this:
- The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail traces the path of the 1965 marches for voting rights for African Americans, during which marchers faced confrontation and even violence.
- Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument protects the Washita River where Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle on November 27, 1868.
The Vail Agenda
Concurrent with its 75th anniversary in 1991, the NPS sponsored a symposium in Vail, Colorado to create a vision for the agency's future success. The "Vail Agenda," produced recommendations in six areas:
- Resource Stewardship and Protection
- Access and Enjoyment
- Education and Interpretation
- Proactive Leadership
- Science and Research
The Vail Agenda suggested that the NPS forge partnerships at the state and local levels to develop and manage parks. One initiative created National Heritage Areas: federally designated historic regions that were owned and managed at a state or local level but received technical assistance and grant funding from the NPS.
Changes in Funding
In 1995, a program was proposed that allowed NPS sites to test increased fees for admission and certain facilities and activities, the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program.
The participating parks retained the majority of revenues generated by their own fees, and a smaller percentage of the revenue went to Service wide initiatives and to parks that were not part of the fee program.
The program was so successful that Congress extended it through 2014 by passing the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) 2004.
Changes in Mission
In 2000, the NPS updated its agency mission. The updated mission reads as follows:
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.
While reusing much of the language, the new statement accepts the validity of outdoor recreation and recognizes important roles for partners. The revised statement lists "inspiration" and "education" as NPS goals, in addition to enjoyment and adding emphasis on interpretive and educational activities. These activities have become a hallmark of the NPS, supplementing the pure pleasure of enjoying nature's wonders and embracing the nation's heritage.
Changes in Communication
As the 20th century drew to a close, the NPS embraced still another important initiative. To enhance its service and its relationship with the public, the NPS developed a messaging project—a tool to help all employees communicate consistently with the public to help them understand and parks and the mission of the National Park Service.
The centerpiece of this messaging project is: "The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.“
NPS employees and partners have also developed a series of organizational statements-or "messages"-to help bridge the gap between what we are and what the public thinks we are. Another key phrase that resulted from the NPS Messaging Project was the phrase "Experience your America.”
Changes in the Future
The discussion about the definition and the role of the NPS continues. However, certain values have survived over time. As the NPS Advisory Board explained in 2001:
The NPS has a twenty-first century responsibility of great importance. It is to proclaim anew the meaning and value of parks, conservation, and recreation; to expand the learning and research occurring in parks and share that knowledge broadly; and to encourage all Americans to experience these special places.
As a people, our quality of life—our very health and well-being-depends in the most basic way on the protection of nature, the accessibility of open space and recreation opportunities, and the preservation of landmarks that illustrate our historic continuity.
By caring for the parks and conveying the park ethic, we care for ourselves and act on behalf of the future. The larger purpose of this mission is to build a citizenry that is committed to conserving its heritage and its home on earth.