Every year, tens of millions of people flood into national parks across our country.
Two of America’s most popular outdoor destinations can be found in the Southeast: Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which saw 12.1 million visitors in 2019, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, with more than 14.1 million visitors that same year. These numbers represent an increase of more than 30% over the previous decade, and don’t even account for the surging demand for outdoor recreation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Which made this year’s parks, recreation, and tourism field camp, hosted by the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, all the more relevant. The class is one of several that works to train the next generation of park managers, environmental educators and naturalists through the school’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management major.
Called “Parks, Environmental Education, and Tourism Management Field Study,” the class takes place during a shortened summer session called Maymester and is kind of like where college meets summer camp. In this course, students get to bond while sharing experiences like archery, shooting, trail maintenance and hiking, all while visiting various local, state and federal parks across Georgia. Park employees from various disciplines discussed topics such as search-and-rescue or urban park planning.
Ryan McFeely, a fourth year parks, recreation, and tourism management major, said the course helped him solidify career goals after graduation and quelled any concerns he had about job options.
"The best part of the course is that I had a lot of anxieties and questions about what would I do with my future? How am I going to get into DNR? How am I going to relate all of the stuff I learned at Warnell into the real world once I get there?" McFeely said. "This course axed all of that anxiety. It made me say, ‘I know what I need to do.’ I look forward to working. I'm not scared about it anymore."
One of the experiences that resonated with students was a day of trail maintenance and restoration led by members of the U.S. Forest Service and partner nonprofits. For park employees, cutting and maintaining trails is one of the more essential aspects of the job. Properly constructed trails allow visitors access to natural areas and are as much about safety as they are about environmental education.
This was a chance for students to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
Maddy Kuhn, a fourth-year parks, recreation and tourism management major, learned how she and other students would be cleaning up trails. Their work would not only allow for increased accessibility, but it would help preserve the trail’s surroundings by encouraging hikers to stay on the path
After a few hours of trail work, students' grins shone through dirt and sweat. Erin Hadjidakis, a Warnell master’s student, said she enjoyed learning the tricks and tools of the trade.
“I knew nothing of these tools going in,” she said. “Now I know their names and how to correctly use them. It's been great to understand and learn the techniques of trail maintenance."
Nearby, Hannah Weiss and Makenna Britt, both fourth-year students, were working to remove a thick root ball from the trail’s pathway. Britt picked up a saw to tackle the root, which was about 8 inches across. Afterward, Weiss noted that this hands-on activity gave her a new perspective on what she could accomplish.
“The hands-on portions of the class were sometimes the most intense.” Weiss added. “It was pretty eye-opening to see how difficult that work can be. We’re doing this for a single day. … You see a lot more of a job when you’re actually doing it, even for a second.”
The experience illustrated not only the time and energy required to maintain trail systems, but that the work is typically done by one employee with occasional volunteers. Retuning students McFeely and Chris King were so moved by the experience that they looked forward to putting the same skills to work as part of a job after graduation. They and other students also recognized the value of volunteering for trail maintenance throughout the year, so they began to plan how they could get involved.
For example, fourth-year student Caroline Fitz said she recognized the luxury of providing free public access to such natural beauty.
"I'm someone who uses local trails so much, whether it be hiking, mountain biking or whatever it may be," she said. "I'm looking forward to giving my time to go out and help maintain those trails and give back to the community."
McFeely and others also recognized the pathway from volunteerism to career.
"I want to say 98%—if not 100% of the professionals we talked to—every one of them said they started out as a volunteer," McFeely said. "And it seems to me like everyone was happy with their career.”
The drive to volunteer on local trails was one of several connections made during the course—and that was part of the goal. Ultimately, this class was about making connections—with other students, professors and professionals within the industry. This lesson resonated deeply, even on the first day of class, when students were able to engage face-to-face with others in their own major for the first time since the pandemic began more than a year prior.
Such an opportunity to meet new people and make friends was not lost on the group.
Fitz said she was excited to have made a new friend group. “It's pretty rare that you see any other major hanging out and going to the pool together, bowling or whatever it may be," she said. "I'm not only excited to have a new group of people, but also to have new connections, from the people we met, my classmates and getting closer to my professors."
The connections reinforced the students’ career paths, their enthusiasm for the natural world and the supportive nature of Warnell students. The consensus among students was that the course was one of the most influential of their college careers.
"This has been one of my favorite courses,” said King “It was so engaging and there was a big social aspect of getting to know people."