Magazine article National Parks

A Mountain to Climb

Magazine article National Parks

A Mountain to Climb

Article excerpt

In Los Angeles, California, the parks of Santa Monica Mountains unite beneath a single banner.

The Santa Monica Mountains are one of Hollywood's most visible backdrops in more ways than one. Sprawling through Los Angeles and Ventura Counties- a stone's throw away from many major studios- the landscape has made appearances in the Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, and Lassie. It stood in for Korea during the filming of M*A*S*H and, more recently, welcomed film crews from Weeds and True Blood. That commercial with a brand new car zooming by ocean scenery? Odds are it was shot on a winding segment of the Pacific Coast Highway in the very same mountain range.

Despite all the screen time the Santa Monica Mountains have gotten, many L.A. residents are unaware that the country's biggest urban park unit is in their backyard- part of a network of parks managed by the Park Service, California State Parks, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and a local agency called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA).

"When I told people I moved here for a job with the National Park Service, they all gave me these funny looks," says Kate Kuykendall, public affairs officer at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "When I'd ask them a few questions, they'd say, Oh yeah, I mountain bike in Cheeseboro Canyon every weekend,' and I'd say, 'Yep, that's Park Service land.' Even frequent visitors fail to make the connection, because there are so many different agencies, and people don't realize it's all part of a whole."

"Members of the public don't really care whose uniform you're wearing or who manages the land," says Amy Lethbridge, deputy executive officer for MRCA. And why should they? They just want to know how to get to the beach, as Lethbridge points out. But in a way, it does matters. Because at a time when budgets are being slashed at every level of government, people need to know that their tax dollars are keeping those trails, beaches, and visitor centers open.

"Our acting superintendent is fond of saying that the parks belong to the people," says Kuykendall. "Everyone is a part owner, so it's only fair and right that people have equal access to the park and an understanding of [all the experiences available to them]. We know the key to our parks' survival rests with younger and more diverse audiences-that's where the demographics are headed- so we need to engage those groups and help them become great stewards in the future."

To that end, all the park agencies agreed to come together to deliver their gospel with a chorus of voices rather than singing alone. But how do you capture the attention of 10 million people in a city where massive billboards advertise blockbuster movies on every corner?

First you reach out to your target audience. With funding from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Geoff Kish and others within NPCA's Center for Park Management set out to talk to members of six key groups: young people, Latinos, urban families that don't visit the park, affluent visitors, tourists, and park neighbors. Researchers walked right up to park visitors and city dwellers and had conversations about the sort of recreational experiences they enjoyed, and found out what they already knew about the park.

That research confirmed some of the agencies' own thinking, but it also revealed that members of some groups feared mountain lions and rattlesnakes lurking at every turn. Others were frustrated when, 20 minutes into a hike, they discovered that some trails allow dogs but others don't; the differing policies left dog owners stumbling into one dead end after another. …

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