04/20/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Connecting Youth to Our National Parks

In Florida, roughly 30 urban minority youths ages 15 to 20 from the inner city of Miami assist in planting 400 trees to create a native tropical hardwood hammock along the shores of Biscayne Bay. In the California Desert, local partners work to organize a workshop that connects teachers in the local community to Joshua Tree National Park by leading hikes, teaching photography and studying ecology so they can bring these lessons back to the classroom. And in Texas, over 30,000 students visit San Antonio Missions National Historical Park annually, where numerous local schools take advantage of a designed education program put on by park staff.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has long recognized the importance of connecting youth and city dwellers to national parks. Advocates across the country are working tirelessly to connect young people in urban communities to the science, history and wonder of our national parks. The National Park Service is working with the Department of Education to further leverage parks as classrooms and develop National Park Service curriculum. NPCA is working with a multitude of public transit systems across the country to provide better access for city residents to nearby national parks. Our national parks are America's living classrooms, and as we approach the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service, we must continue to support and expand on these efforts to cultivate the next generation of national park stewards.

Today, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Over the last few years, NPCA has made it a priority to better connect youth and diverse communities to nearby national parks. According to a recent USA Today story, fewer young people are visiting our national parks and it's more important than ever to get them outdoors. By developing connections through partnerships with groups like NatureBridge, the Student Conservation Association and the Outdoor Alliance for Kids, we can help youth and individuals experience America's national treasures. Working together, we must advocate for increased protections and resources to ensure that educational opportunities can be seized at parks throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas.

This past January, the National Parks Conservation Association, along with the National Park Foundation and the National Park Hospitality Association convened America's Summit on National Parks -- bringing together diverse voices to chart a course for national parks in their second century. Nearly 400 participants engaged in dynamic discussions, including how we can better connect youth and urban communities to our national parks. Speakers underscored the importance of parks as classrooms, the need for them to be more relevant to more people, particularly those who live in urban areas, and the need to recognize the diversity of the nation through our national and historic landmarks.

The Summit inspired thought-provoking dialogue on some of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing our national parks. These ideas are captured in the "Statement of Principles" and include action items that we as a community can take to ensure the protection, enhancement and support for our national parks and programs into their second century.

Our national parks are the soul of America, telling our diverse stories and teaching valuable lessons about our shared heritage, from the Underground Railroad and Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite to the San Antonio Missions. Attracting the next generation of park advocates from diverse backgrounds is an important part of ensuring that our national parks remain relevant in the next century.

As we commemorate National Parks Week with free admission to parks, I encourage all Americans to visit and explore the natural beauty of our 397 national park sites across the country. By increasing the diversity of park visitors, we also empower the next generation of national park advocates.

-Tom Kiernan, President, National Parks Conservation Association