Geography course shows there's more to national parks than meets the eye

For 40 miles the Middle Delaware River passes between low forested mountains with barely a house in sight. Then the river cuts through the mountain ridge to form the famed "Water Gap." Exiting the park, the river will run 200 miles more to Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean at Wilmington, Delaware. Credit: National Park ServiceAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Do your vacation plans include a visit to a national park? There are 18 national parks within Pennsylvania in a national park system comprised of more than 400 areas in every state. Pennsylvania is home to the smallest site, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia; the 10th most visited site in 2012, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, along the upper Delaware River; and, commemorating its sesquicentennial this year, the Gettysburg National Military Park. Each park is more than just a pretty space.

“National parks are iconic in the American psyche,” said Erica Smithwick, an ecologist and associate professor of geography at Penn State, “Ironically however, parks can separate people from natural resources, and the resulting tensions can hinder socio-ecological approaches to conservation,” she added, noting that these challenges make the national park system in general, and Pennsylvania in particular, an ideal framework for exploring broad themes of sustainability, conservation and socio-ecological systems.

“For example, Pennsylvania contains 20 state forests, the Allegheny National Forest and multiple national historic sites, recreation areas, scenic trails and memorials that are operated through the National Park Service. Yet, it is also the focus of shifting energy extraction regimes, including Marcellus Shale natural gas, wind power and coal,” Smithwick explained, adding, “Pennsylvania is also a critical boundary between two important forest zones that are expected to shift northward under climate change; its unique topography makes it a bottleneck for species migration networks under climate change. This conflict — pressure for energy extraction and potential consequences for increasing fragmentation of priority habitat areas — makes the Pennsylvania landscape a key region for discussion about sustainability.”

And it makes GEOG 097A Global Sustainability and International Parks a good introduction for students who are interested in learning more about sustainability issues, whether they are geography majors or not, Smithwick noted. The course uses video of various parkscapes to present case studies.

Preston Linck (bachelor of arts, 2013) took GEOG 097A Global Sustainability and International Parks in his final semester as a landscape architecture student. “I took this class to learn more about national parks. I am an interested traveler and photographer, and the idea of national parks appealed to both interests,” he explained, adding that the class did not meet his initial expectations. “I think that I was expecting to see a bunch of pictures of national parks and learn some general quick facts. The class ended up being much more than that — and in a good way for the most part. The class challenged us to understand a national park not only as place but as a complex landscape that includes history, ecology, society and the conservation.” 

“There is no sugar-coating the issue; it is not a black-and-white choice between conservation or society. Rather, we will explore the gray area -- how do you protect and preserve the biota of earth while also providing resources for human livelihoods?” Smithwick asked. “I don't think there is one ‘correct’ answer to this question in an era of profound pressure on ecosystems and the human condition.”

Barbara Munin, who took the class in spring 2013 as a new geography major, said she appreciated the opportunity to explore different points of view and found the concept-mapping project a challenge. “I think that a student looking for a way to express her creativity would appreciate this class. I didn't know that was what I was getting registering for the course, but I was pleasantly surprised. GEOG 97 wasn't like my other classes; it was a breath of fresh air, and I loved it.”

“Through each case study, students travel virtually to a place of ecological complexity and to critically examine the issues,” Smithwick explains. “Sustainability depends as much on an understanding of ecological threats and challenges as it does on societal needs, capacity, ethics and methodologies.”

Then students get behind the camera for their final project, to create a video that integrates material from the course into a story of a parkscape, by exploring the ecological basis for conservation, the social issues, drivers of change (such as climate change) and sustainability opportunities.

Jon Poler (bachelor of science, 2013) wasn’t sure about the format at first. “Looking back on it, however, I think I actually liked the format," he said. "Applying the material to a project that we learned about independently was probably the best way to learn. The paper and the movie project were very interesting and challenging.”

“This course reinforced my beliefs regarding nature,” Poler said. “What I liked is that it really brought the question of ‘How do we reconcile somewhat idealist principles with pragmatic management strategies?’ to the forefront.” Poler recommended the course for anyone who is interested in learning about our current understanding of human relationships with the environment.

Reflecting on the course, Linck noted that to be able to investigate, understand and interpret a park was a challenge. “Historically, many of these parks are blood-ridden and were claimed unjustly, scarring the integrity of the landscape. Adding to this, the many other social injustices that still plague the notion of these parks as being truly invaluable acts of conservation, I have an internal dilemma of the true value of national parks in society. On the other hand, national parks are so much a part of national identity and culture, where many people behind the scenes work so hard to conserve and preserve ecologically sensitive and attractive landscapes for the sake of future generations. My view on national parks has changed drastically. Until this course, I had only positive perceptions of national parks and had taken for granted their existence.” 

Smithwick gives an example of a park with a complex story. “I've worked in Yellowstone — the world's first national park — studying the effects of forest fire on vegetation, soils and nutrients for more than a decade, and it perfectly exemplifies some of this conflict. It was established under the historical context of westward expansion and frontier ideology, at a time when tourism, the railroad, gold and romantic notions of nature were on people's minds. The park still captures the imagination of its visitors and serves tremendous educational, scientific and conservation goals. It is also a place of modern day tradeoffs among livelihoods and ecosystems, where wolves can, for example, serve not only as economic and conservation magnets but also as a source of frustration for farmers outside the park. Finding sustainable solutions to these issues is an opportunity to rethink our approach to conservation.”

Last Updated July 16, 2013