Mickey Fearn promotes new era of outreach and communication for National Park Service

Mickey Fearn, The National Park Service’s (NPS) Deputy Director for Communications and Community Assistance, was the guest speaker at the March 2010 Recreation Exchange hosted by the American Recreation Coalition. Mr. Fearn has responsibility for NPS Communications, Public Affairs, Strategic Planning, Tribal Relations, International Affairs, Partnerships, Legislative and Congressional Affairs, Policy, State and Local Assistance Programs and Information Technology. His updated title and expanded role emphasize a new focus at NPS on outreach and communications efforts, especially to groups currently underrepresented among park visitors.

Prior to coming to NPS, Mr. Fearn played key roles in the Seattle city government. His accomplishments included creation of a Seattle Parks and Recreation Summer Youth Program connecting urban youth to the natural world while promoting personal responsibility and healthy lifestyles. In Seattle, he served as Manager of the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative, Director of the City's Innovation Project, and Director of Seattle's Neighborhood Leadership Program. Mr. Fearn also served as a Washington State Parks and Recreation Commissioner for 12 years. Prior to his time in Seattle, he worked for the Governor of California, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Mayor of Oakland, California.

Mr. Fearn is a longtime acquaintance of NPS Director Jon Jarvis, but he admitted he was reluctant when Mr. Jarvis asked him to move to Washington, D.C. to take on the deputy director position. However, he explained, he became motivated to accept the job after reading about Theodore Roosevelt and realizing that President Obama, Secretary Salazar and Director Jarvis hoped to have as great an impact on parks and the outdoors as Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt did. Mr. Fearn said that a major challenge in meeting this goal is to determine how to have such impact without setting aside huge tracts of land for preservation or creating the large civilian conservation corps that the Great Depression necessitated, as the Roosevelts did.

Under Director Jarvis’ leadership, said Mr. Fearn, NPS has outlined several major objectives, including increasing the professionalism of its workforce and making the national parks relevant to all people. The latter objective is part of a greater goal, he stated, to eliminate the separation between the environmental community and the rest of the population, creating an atmosphere where everyone cares for the shared resources of the environment.

Mr. Fearn told the group about a recent debate between himself and his twenty-year-old son about which one of them grew up in a better era. While his son typically thinks that he grew up in the better time, Mr. Fearn thinks that his son missed out on key childhood experiences. For example, he said, his son played organized sports his entire life, but never played a pickup game. And in decades past, he added, playgrounds were the sacred space of children, and now they are areas tightly controlled by adults. Mr. Fearn noted that playing pickup games and using their imaginations on the playground contribute to children’s development, both mentally and physically. Nowadays, he asked, if you’re an obese child who does not play an organized sport, what are your options? In response to this challenge, he noted, Director Jarvis is working on how to get these fundamental childhood experiences back into the daily routines of today’s children.

Mr. Fearn told the group that his wife was the Vice President of Marketing at a major company, and he has borrowed some language from her that he finds helpful in thinking about different user groups we are trying to attract to our public lands. First, there is the “aware user group,” who are the people who are aware of the national parks and also visit them. A second group is non-aware users, who visit the parks, but have no idea what the National Park Service is. He noted that most citizens are not aware of the agency that manages a particular area of public land, but only care that the resource is maintained. A third group is aware non-users, who are familiar with the parks, but do not visit. And the fourth group is the non-aware, non-user population. Mr. Fearn said this last group is the one that corporations target their marketing efforts towards, and the group that we must try to connect to our public lands. To do so, he said, we have to address the challenges that keep some of these groups from coming.

Other challenges facing Mr. Fearn at NPS include determining how to give cultural units in the system the same stature as the more natural (and well-known) parks. He told the group about a recent trip to California, where he had both a wonderful experience enjoying the Point Reyes National Seashore and a moving visit to nearby Port Chicago, where 320 (mostly African American) men were killed in an ammunition explosion in 1944. It is important that both types of sites get the recognition and respect they deserve, Mr. Fearn said, since the units of the National Park System tell the story of America at its best and at its worst.

Mr. Fearn addressed a question concerned with balancing the best interest of the American people with the potential over-involvement of gateway communities in the decision making of NPS. Mr. Fearn noted that this question raised an interesting topic, since gateway communities often fought the hardest against creation of parks, but now strive to be heavily involved in the parks’ planning process. Traditionally, he said, the national parks were based on the European concept of tourism, meaning that parks were a destination vacation where people had to travel far to see them and often stayed in remote locations. The current focus of NPS is to have the national parks perceived as more than tourism destinations, involving other stakeholders in addition to gateway communities.

In answering a question about future funding challenges, Mr. Fearn said his own background makes him particularly suited for such challenges. He never had access to much funding to accomplish his initiatives in his previous roles, he said, so successes had to be built on partnerships. For example, he said, we do not currently take advantage of the great resource we have in the local parks and recreation departments that have year-round access to the same kids we are trying to reach. Mr. Fearn said one readily available partnership opportunity involves transporting kids to public lands. He said the biggest reason why city kids say they don’t visit public lands is the lack of ways to get there. Bus and motorcoach companies are willing to help us out on this, he said, we just have to involve them. In regards to the funding difficulties, he said, “I never pay attention to the budget stuff as a reason not to do something.” However, Mr. Fearn expressed frustration about a view of parks as a non-essential service, saying, “We know it’s a bad idea to have people sitting around with nothing to do and nothing to lose.”

In response to a question about providing park visitors with access to state-of-the-art technology, Mr. Fearn acknowledged that is a complex issue, particularly in regards to attracting kids to the great outdoors. We don’t necessarily want to give people all the comforts of home, he said, as it is part of the park experience not to have access to certain things. However, there are some visitors, like tech-savvy teenagers, who may want and expect these services. “I don’t believe in polarities,” Mr. Fearn said, so we need to be able to determine when it’s appropriate to provide them.

Another question broached the difficulty in overcoming the mind set of some agencies that the only way to connect kids to nature is to bring them somewhere, rather than show them the nature close to home. Mr. Fearn acknowledged this difficulty, stating that you cannot change the attitude of others using your own value system. We also have to recognize the barriers that keep non-park users from coming out, he said, and some of those reasons can be related to fear of the unknown. We must be sympathetic to the mentality of others and understand where they are coming from, he noted. He gave an example of why his own children were denied some outdoor experiences while growing up. He had a fear of rural racial violence from his own youth spent in the South. While his children did not have this fear, his own fear denied them the experience. Mr. Fearn also stated that it is morally wrong to take inner-city kids out and show them the grandeur of nature and then return them to the city without giving them any tools for improving their own neighborhood.

Mr. Fearn welcomed all participants to contact him if they would like to continue any conversations from the Recreation Exchange.

Recreation Exchanges are hosted in Washington, D.C., by the American Recreation Coalition and feature guests who are influencing recreation public policy in America. Information on past and future programs is available at: www.funoutdoors.com.

If you would like to contact Mickey Fearn, he can be reached as follows:
Mickey Fearn
Deputy Director, Communications and Community Assistance
National Park Service
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240
(202) 208-3818

Recreation Exchanges are made possible by the following sponsors:

American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Reclamation
Kampgrounds of America
Motorcycle Industry Council
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Recreation and Park Association
National Tour Association
Personal Watercraft Industry Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service