Interview: Rock the Park Co-Hosts, Jack Steward and Colton Smith, #RTP100

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act, which established the National Park Service, a federal bureau that would be responsible for preserving and protecting the existing thirty-five national parks and monuments at the time, and would also bear the same responsibility for those areas yet to be designated. Over the last hundred years, the National Park System has grown to encompass fifty-nine national parks, and over one hundred and twenty one national monuments. More importantly, over the last one hundred years, the United States National Park system has served as an inspiration to the creation of similar preserves around the world.

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service and the National Park System will officially turn one hundred years old, and in conjunction with that, a number of celebrations have been ongoing throughout all of 2016. Long time readers of my blog are aware that among many things, the National Park System holds a special spot in my heart, in part because I worked at the Backcountry Division of the National Park Service in Yosemite for a season. Recently, I was contacted by one of my favorite shows, Rock the Park, which is hosted by Jack Steward and Colton Smith, and was asked if I’d like to participate in their celebration of the centennial of the National Park System (#RTP100).

Zion National Park

As I love the National Parks, and was a big fan of their show, it was an offer that I couldn’t turn down. As part of the RTP#100 program, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jack and Colton to talk about their experiences in the parks, and their background with the National Park System, have some fun, and discuss where they see the National Parks heading in the next one hundred years.

Wizard Island, Crater Lake National Park

Last Adventurer: Let’s start with the basics – before there was a Rock the Park, what was the first National Park that you visited.

Jack Steward: Oh man! That’s a tough question. I believe it would have been Acadia National Park, around when I was four.

Colton Smith:  And for me, it would have been Yellowstone.

Hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

Last Adventurer:  You guys are currently the hosts of Rock the Park, and are working on a series regarding finding your parks, but before you started on those projects, how many National Parks had you been to?

Jack Steward: If I remember, I think I had been to fourteen National Parks at that point.

Colton Smith: You know, I’m not sure, but I do know that I went through a period in my life where I would go from destination to destination, seeing what was new.

Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park

Last Adventurer: Along those lines, before you began the Rock the Park project, what did you think your favorite park to visit would be? After starting the project and visiting parks, what has in actuality, been your favorite park to visit?

Jack Steward: Well, once we came up with the idea, and started doing research on all the parks, what stuck out for me Katmai National Park in Alaska, with all of the Alaskan brown bears. As soon as I learned about it, it was something that I had to see, especially with the general awe of the unknown that Alaska brings. And, I have to say that when we were there, it lived up to the mental hype I had.

Colton Smith: For me, Glacier National Park is a place that just holds a special spot in my life. The scenery, everything about it just was a life-changing experience for me, and something that I treasure – and will treasure always. There’s just something about coming out of the Ptarmigan Tunnel and taking in those mind-blowing views.

Lassen National Park

Last Adventurer: As all of us are aware, the National Park system turns one hundred this year, and has in many respects, been credited for encouraging conservation both home and abroad. What do you think that United States National Park System provides that has made it unique, and continues to make it unique even at a hundred years old?

Jack Steward:  I think the idea of preserving the wilderness is the main thing that is unique about the National Park System; and basically is a timeless – and probably one of America’s greatest ideas.

Colton Smith: Yeah, to expand on what Jack said, the idea of preservation, and what America was able to do because of brilliant men who had amazing foresight was really monumental. When you think about it, it was an idea that came along at the right time, and something that continues to this day.

Death Valley National Park

Last Adventurer: Moving on to a short “Best Of” series of questions – what would you say is the best viewpoint in the National Parks, The Best Historic Structure, and which National Park in your experience has the best food?

Jack Steward: I’d have to go with the St. Mary Lake viewpoint in Glacier – just a stunning view. For the best scenic drive, I’d stick with Glacier National Park, and the Going to the Sun road. The view from the road just over the guard-rail always makes your stomach drop! I think for me, the best historic structure is the Old Faithful Inn, in Yellowstone, because it was designed to bring people into parks in order that they could have amazing experiences. As for food, I’d have to say Yosemite, because not only is there a historic climbing context from eating at Degnan’s Deli, but as of 2016, the park has a really amazing recycling program that handles the trash generated by visitors really well. When you know that things are sustainable, the food just tastes that much better.

Colton Smith: The St. Mary Viewpoint is amazing; but I’d also add in the Tunnel View at Yosemite National Park, when you come out on it, and look into the valley, it’s like finding the Garden of Eden, sculpted by a master sculptor. I don’t disagree with Jack though about the Going to the Sun road though!

Last Adventurer: I’ve prepared a list of some of the obscure bits of trivia about the National Parks; let’s see how you do in a bit of a Pop Quiz: 1) I say “hat shop”; am I talking about new gear or something  else?  2) If I want to take the Subway, where might I be? 3) Did Scotty own the castle? 4) If I hear a pohono, should I walk quickly or slowly, and where might I be? 5) What can you see from Washburn Peak? 6) Does the Barker Dam still hold water? 7) Yellowstone hot springs – good for a dip, or something to admire from afar?

Jack Steward/Colton Smith: Well, for number one, you’re talking about the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon; for number two, you’re obviously talking about Zion National Park; number three, you’re talking about being in Yosemite National Park, and we think that you should walk quickly; for number four you can see Yellowstone; the Barker Dam still holds water; and one should always admire those hot springs from afar. How did we do?

Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

Last Adventurer: Perfect! For the final question, let me ask both of you this: at 100 the National Parks face a variety of challenges that were not foreseen by the founders, including that of higher than ever visitation, and social media use gone awry. How do you feel that the parks can address these challenges on a going forward basis to better protect the resources and educate the public?

Jack Steward: I think the key to most things is education. In general, I also feel that the parks do a great job at responding to all of the modern day challenges that arise. Obviously, we want to keep places pristine, so education is key in dealing with first time or long time visitors. One of the things that’s interesting is that virtual reality is coming a long way, so hopefully these places grandeur can be mapped out so that they can be accessible to people virtually and in real life to allow even greater access and respect in the future.

Colton Smith: I agree with Jack that education is key. One of the things to come up at the 100 year anniversary here is the role of the public, and of bloggers and other influential social media personalities. I think people have a role to play in creating an educated body of park visitors, to help the parks last another 100 years or longer, and to ensure that parks have room for everyone. I also think that by allowing everyone to have a voice, it takes some of the burden off the parks, although there will always be a role for the National Parks in educating the public.

Epilogue: Jack and Colton will be continuing their journey on Rock the Park, and you can follow them both online and off through social media and their show. If you want to take part in their celebrations of the National Park’s centennial, be sure to use the hashtag “RTP100” on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media channels.