BY KATE CORRIGAN, GLEN HVENEGAARD, ELIZABETH HALPENNY, AND CLARA-JANE BLYE
Many readers will have fond memories of participating in interpretive programs while visiting national and provincial parks. When I (Kate) was young, my dad and I attended an outdoor theatre program about bears at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. I eagerly volunteered to help the interpreter by wearing a black bear hide on my back while holding a skull and a set of claws. I could hardly contain my smile while on stage. This program inspired my family to visit Kananaskis every summer, sparked excitement whenever I saw a bear, and led to a career in environmental education, raft guiding, and research. My co-authors had similar experiences as kids which led to summer jobs, teaching, and research involving interpretation.
Unfortunately, interpretation in Alberta Parks is currently at risk of being permanently cut. In the summer of 2021, programs were no longer offered at popular parks such as Kananaskis, William A. Switzer, and Miquelon. This needs to be reversed. Park interpretation provides important benefits, both for parks and for park visitors. Research undertaken by our team at the University of Alberta has provided insights into these benefits, which we will share here.
What is Interpretation?
At interpretive programs, engaging and passionate interpreters interact with visitors while leading outdoor theatre programs, guiding hikes, and showing historical artifacts. The programs are designed to attract visitors and enrich their experiences, ensure visitor safety, and promote environmental protection. Interpretive programs add tremendous value to a park visit and, in some cases, are transformative experiences.
One form of interpretation involves direct contact between the interpreter and the visitor. Interpreters may carry artifacts such as furs and skulls around a campground. They and their volunteers may put on funny costumes and sing their hearts out in outdoor theatre programs. Or they may lead visitors into special areas — or on a trip into the past — on bus tours and guided hikes. Personal interpretation is ideal in that it provides direct two-way interaction and the ability to answer questions and guide observations. This leads to better results for visitors and better outcomes for nature. However, hiring interpretive staff can be expensive. Moreover, the results depend on the visitor and the quality of the interpreter, there are limits on the number of participants, and language can be a barrier.
The other main type of interpretation is passive and does not require a person to deliver a program. It takes forms such as exhibits, signs, brochures, books, websites, and more. Of course, interpreters are the masterminds behind these materials. Non-personal interpretation is relatively inexpensive, always on the job, requires little maintenance, can contact many people, and allows visitors to move at their own pace. However, there is no human interaction, it is inflexible, and can produce information overload. (Remember how tired you are at the end of a museum visit?)
Benefits of Personal Interpretation
During the past five years, our research team has worked to identify the most common goals and outcomes of park interpretation programs across Alberta. We found that these programs mainly seek to achieve the following six goals:
- enjoyment of the experience,
- learning something new,
- attitude change,
- behaviour change,
- connecting visitors to the place, and
- generating positive memories.
In our travels, we heard countless personal stories about how interpreter-led programs have positively affected children and adults. Many impacts were small and short-lived (e.g., entertainment), while others were significant and long-lasting (e.g., connecting to the place, changing behaviours, and changing careers).
Even though anecdotes are powerful, we wanted to systematically analyze the outcomes of interpretive programs and determine which factors affect those outcomes. Therefore, in 2018 and 2019, we travelled to all provincial parks in Alberta offering personally delivered interpretive programs. We surveyed almost 2,000 park visitors, 763 of whom attended an interpretation program during their current trip and 909 that did not (though many had done so in the past).
So is the investment in interpretation worth it? Does a little girl wearing a bear suit actually have an impact? In short, YES, interpretive programs generate significant outcomes. Those who attended a program rated satisfaction of their entire park experiences higher than non-attendees. In addition, attendees rated the knowledge gained from their trip higher than non-attendees. This result is important because most parks market interpretation programs as enjoyable learning experiences.
In a follow-up study one year later, we found that visit satisfaction, learning, and one behaviour — subsequent attendance at an interpretive program — remained higher for those that attended a program versus those who did not. In addition, positive memories became higher for attendees. This suggests that the positive effects of interpretation are long lasting.
Past research has shown that parks also benefit from having interpretive programs. There are fewer public safety incidents, less impact on park resources, and greater support for park goals.
Changing Visitor Behaviours
Besides increasing the enjoyment of park visits and supporting learning, interpretation can also help improve park-friendly behaviours, such as reducing littering, not feeding animals, leaving artifacts intact, and not picking wildflowers. Let’s take the example of not leaving campfires unattended, which reduces the chances of starting a wildfire. Campers are more likely to tend to their fires if they believe that doing so will have a positive impact. To encourage this behaviour, interpreters can deliver messages highlighting the benefits of safety and sustaining natural processes in the environment, rather than emphasizing the potential damage caused by human-caused fires.
We also know that people are more likely to adjust their behaviour if they feel there is social support for it. When people see that people of influence (e.g., fellow campers, family members, and friends) support a certain action, they are more likely to comply. Again, interpreters can motivate park visitors by sharing examples of how all campers play a critical role in safety and how most campers abide by the rules. Interpreters can also help campers understand exactly what the rules are and how easy it is to comply.
Unfortunately, past research has shown that behaviour changes are harder to achieve than increasing visitor enjoyment and learning because attitudes and behaviours depend on more deeply held values and beliefs. This may explain the limited effect that interpretation had on park-friendly behaviours in our study. We found there was only a modest improvement in visitors’ views toward park issues such as feeding wildlife and keeping campsites clean. We found no significant effect on building connections to the places visited or positive memories about that place.
Which Programs Work Best?
We attended 118 programs. Of these, 37% were outdoor theatre shows, 24% were guided walks or bus tours, 19% were family programs, and 11% were demonstrations and slide shows. The average program length was 89 minutes with an average audience size of 92 people (keep in mind we analyzed only programs with five or more attendees in the sample).
We found that outdoor theatre programs performed very well for satisfaction, learning, visiting the same park in the future, and for attending a future interpretive program. Guided walks strongly supported learning. Family programs were associated with satisfaction, visiting the same park in the future, and attending a future interpretive program.
We also found that the excitement level of the interpreters was positively associated with a visitor’s intention to visit another park. Conversely, programs that ran too long had reduced effectiveness. Programs that were well organized and made lots of connections helped increase visitors’ knowledge and their desire to visit the same park. Surprisingly, a large audience was associated with great satisfaction, park-friendly behavioural intentions, desire to visit the same park, and desire to attend another program. The sense of community that is generated when you enjoy a shared experience with others may contribute to the positive outcomes associated with large audiences.
When we asked visitors about interpretive programs, the results were fairly consistent. For enjoyment, visitors stressed that theatre, variety, and getting outside were desirable. For learning, respondents appreciated theatre, entertainment, visitor involvement, and repetition. As for changing behaviours, interpretation that was engaging, educational, and visitor-focused was best. Visitors also felt that the opportunity to gain first-hand experience, the quality of the staff, and seeing actual consequences were important.
Threats to Personal Interpretation
Our research clearly shows that interpretation has many positive effects on park visitors. In addition, the park and park agency benefit by reducing costs through park-friendly behaviour, safer activities, and positive connections with the park agency. The next time you visit a place that offers interpretation, take advantage of the opportunities. You will not be disappointed!
Regrettably, personal interpretation in Alberta’s provincial parks is facing significant threats. In 2021, almost all provincial parks in Alberta, except for Dinosaur and Writing-On-Stone/Áísínai'pi, stopped offering personal interpretation. The most important factors were government budget cuts, staff reallocations, and to a minor extent, COVID-19 precautions.
This adverse decision was not well-researched and will cause harm to the park agency and the natural environment. Park visitors are losing out on key experiences that shape their park holidays. The park is losing the opportunity gain new ambassadors for our park system and stewards for the natural environment. Of course, non-personal interpretation is beneficial, but personally delivered programs are more effective in generating positive visitor outcomes.
How You Can Help
The decision to curtail park interpretation will be revisited in the fall of 2021. We want to see personal interpretive programs offered again across the regular suite of parks for the summer of 2022. We also encourage increased funding to retain and properly manage Alberta’s existing system of parks. For further reading on the subject, visit albertaviews.ca/kenney-vs-campgrounds.
If you believe in the benefits of personal interpretation, if you have a story of how an interpretive experience connected with you and your family, if you see the value of personal interpretation as part of defending our parks, please reach out to our provincial decision-makers and tell them so. Contact Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and your local MLA (find yours at assembly.ab.ca/members/members-of-the-legislative-assembly) and tell them that personally delivered interpretive programs are a priority and should be fully funded for 2022 and beyond.
Kate Corrigan, BA Environment Studies, is an Environmental Education Coordinator with Wildsight (Golden, BC) and a research assistant.
Glen Hvenegaard, PhD, is a Professor of Environmental Science, focusing on parks, environmental education, tourism, and wildlife conservation.
Elizabeth Halpenny, PhD, teaches and conducts research in the areas of tourism, marketing, environmental psychology, and protected areas management.
Clara-Jane Blye, PhD candidate, researches outdoor recreation, inclusion, and protected areas. All are at the University of Alberta.