4 Ways State Parks Use Technology for Inclusive Experience

July 12, 2022 by Peter Friesen

4 Ways State Parks Use Technology for Inclusive Experience

The pandemic ushered a booming number of visitors into parks across the country as people found solace in leaving the house and connecting with nature. Along with a focus on outdoor recreation comes conversations about the need for inclusivity, safety, and access, from neighborhood parks and playgrounds to state parks that welcome thousands of visitors a day.

Recent PEW Trust research found parks and campgrounds around the country are less diverse than the communities they serve: three in four visitors are white, while the national population rate is 60%. But many states have noticed this disparity and sought to make the outdoors more inclusive.

The Tyler Tech podcast recently interviewed Brian Ketterer, the coastal field division chief for California State Parks; as well as Melissa Miller, a travel influencer who has visited parks around the country and provides tips on solo travel; on how technology helps include more visitors.

1. Streamlined Reservations

Online reservations help Miller, who goes by Miss Rover online, as she starts planning a trip. She uses her state’s reservation system as a search engine, typing in an area she wants to visit, and seeing what’s open. This exposes Miller to new parks, and lets her quickly put together an itinerary, whether she plans on backpacking, camping, or driving her camper van. Having a solid itinerary booked out in advance not only secures her spot, it allows Miller to share plans with family and friends as she usually travels solo.

Reservations also make it easier on parks staff, who have dealt with growing crowds in recent years. Ketterer said inventory of camping spots is always an issue, but many issues can be mitigated with the best possible online experience.

“We’re offering you a reservation system, the reservation system needs to work well,” Ketterer said.

2. Easy Entry

Entering a crowded park can mean long lines of cars and holding on to a pass or paper ticket to show rangers, all of which eats into precious recreation time. The technology is there, however, to make entry a breeze, from virtual passes, which can include cards in a digital wallet, to license plate scanners that automatically connect your car with current pass information.

As outdoor recreation became a part of many people’s lives during the pandemic, both Miller and Ketterer recognized outdoor opportunities should be for everyone, not just those who can easily afford gear or day passes. Miller was inspired to start her own travel blog in part because she was learning in real time how to travel alone, just out of college, with very little money.

In California, there are 18 different passes available for groups that may need help visiting the parks, including senior and veteran discounted passes, as well as library park passes, that can be checked out by anyone with a library card. Ketterer said around 5,000 passes had been distributed to libraries across the state at the end of 2021, and state parks are able to track zip code data from checkouts, giving insight into the communities they’re reaching. Many of the passes are available online, and in the future may be available to add to a digital wallet and synced across family profiles.

3. New Experiences and Programming

Getting new visitors to a park is the first hurdle, but it’s equally important to ensure they are comfortable, safe, and open to new experiences once inside. Ketterer would like to see state parks use the technology they have to connect concessions, gear rentals, and tours to the reservation system, making it easy for people to book out more of their trip in advance.

Park ranger programming should be inclusive as well. Virtual talks or pre-recorded guided tours help connect more people with the history and environmental aspects of a park, and allow visitors to find more information before and after they visit. Maybe they’re inspired to visit more parks, even in their own neighborhood.

Ketterer ponders, “What are we going to do inside to make sure that everybody feels comfortable, that they walk away with that memory, with that idea that ‘I need to go explore more’?”

4. Engaging Social Media

Sharing images, opportunities, and news across social media casts the widest possible net, catching visitors that are on their way to a park, and inspiring those scrolling from their couch to book a trip.

Parks can push rapid updates on weather, or closures, keeping visitors in the loop. In recent summers, Miller has had to keep an eye on wildfires, either cancelling or rerouting trips based off of quickly shifting information.

For Ketterer, social media is a great way to get the word out about all of the tech updates that now allow visitors to book, enter, and recreate in their parks more easily.

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