Customer Service: Key to Conservation

This article was published in the Region IV newsletter of the National Association of Interpreters, then picked up by the west coast region. “Interpreters”, in this context, refers to park naturalists and museum curators. Edward Abbey was one of the most famous of all such interpreters and is well-known for his book “Desert Solitaire” about his time as a ranger at Arches National Monument.

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I am not a naturalist but I married one. My training is in management, but because I often join my wife when she travels on business, I enjoy unique opportunities to observe various presentational styles, activities, and programs from a perspective that lies somewhere between that of interpreter and visitor.

I recently had the chance to visit a park in Arkansas at which my wife was assisting in a program for boy scouts. As she had a busy schedule during the day, I availed myself of the opportunity to take a solo morning hike through the hills and beaver dams near the park and returned deeply entrenched in the role of observer. I spent the rest of the day visiting the various stations and observing interpretive programs by people of disparate backgrounds but similar passions. After dinner and the last of the orienteers recovered, we circled the picnic tables for the traditional bonfire and story telling. The park’s chief interpreter, who had just finished an exhausting day as policeman, coordinator, and teacher, rose and called the gathering to order. After introductory remarks, announcements, and jokes, he was prodded into telling The Story of the Purple Gorilla.

You are probably familiar with this tale, as were your grandparents and theirs before them. Some of the boys might not have heard it told, but we adults certainly had. Yet, this particular interpreter was not content merely to tell a story. He performed it; pacing about, modulating his voice, inflecting, gesticulating wildly, and weaving doors, cellars, airplanes and apes out of the very smoke and darkness around us.

Exhausted at last, the man yielded his stage to the riotous laughter of the scouts, who were then to exchange their own stories in competition. Since I had no other official duties this weekend, I ws drafted as one of the judges and watched as the first competitor drew near the fire, clearly enlightened and perhaps a bit intimidated by the performance he had just seen. He told another venerable story, probably the only one he knew, but he told it with all the soul and creativity of a young mind just awakened to new possibilities. He sold it, and in the end he left the park with top honors (a book of stories for future nights of revelry) and, I think, a little more self-esteem and a truer appreciation for the whole scouting experience. When, in twenty years time, he is telling those stories to his own troop in the same park, it may well be because one tired man wove apparitions out of thin air when he really would rather have been safely in bed.

Management consultant and author Tom Peters once pointed out a difference in attitude between contract and full-time employees which, I believe, makes my point well. The contract worker, he said, cannot afford to merely meet the stated needs of his employer. More than just doing his job, he must ensure that his efforts are noted so that he is invited back to work another day. He must market himself to those who write the checks.

This is very important. It is easy for a naturalist or curator to fall prey to the illusion that his lot in life is to preserve the wilderness, study God’s creature, protect ancient artifacts, and generally pursue loftier aspirations than merely entertaining the tourists. The truth is, though, that wherever you are, whatever you have lined out for this week’s programs — however important the studies and work that your visitors never see or appreciate — you are, first and foremost, paid to meet the needs of other human beings. How well you meet those needs not only determines how long you may expect to be paid, but how well the underlying resources you value will be preserved as well. Though Edward Abbey might not have liked to think about it, he could not have lived in the wilderness without the tourists, and as destructive and mindless as development can be, human beings are the dominant force on this planet for better or worse. As Jim Fowler said while speaking at my wife’s park, “wild animals will only survive if they are worth money”. If people aren’t hiking the wilderness, they’ll be building on top of it.

No one would like to retire to the wilds for a life of academic solitude more than I, but the reality is that naturalists have a responsibility that goes beyond greeting visitors and clearing trails. Through interpretation, creative marketing, and a business-minded outlook, MAI members hold the key to imbuing future generations with a love of nature and the dedication to save it. As humanity moves further from its organic roots and more children grow up in cyberspace, getting them into out parks and museums in increasingly important to showing them the value of the things and places we work so hard to preserve.

The key to preserving the resources we love lies in learning to manage and market them as a business. If we can study natural resource management, we can study marketing and business management. Only with marketing and service excellence sufficient to keep the voters coming back to stoke the campfires, can we keep the funds flowing and the resources protected. It is a balancing act to be sure, for with the money comes garbage, noise, and stress, but the alternative is unacceptable. Neither governments nor corporate sponsors exist to preserve our wild places, and when public interest is gone, so will the places themselves fade away as even the best tales do, when spoken into an empty darkness.

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