Exiting Through the Gift Shop: Using Interpretive Principles to Strengthen the Park Store

Telling the story of your conservation, wildlife, or park non-profit is critical work.

Storytelling can include a wide range of activities: interpretation, outreach, communications, nurturing donors, engagement, development, and more. Ultimately, they all funnel into one significant opportunity to connect your message to your audience — at your organization’s gift shop or store

Stores provide an important and often critical source of funding for parks, zoos, museums, education travel, nature centers, aquaria, botanical gardens, conservation organizations, and historical sites. The products sold must be meaningful so they allow for emotional and intellectual connections to be made (think interpretation) — it is key to communicating why your organization’s mission is important.

How can store products be strengthened through interpretation?

Here are six principles of interpretation developed by Freeman Tilden and re-stated by Larry Beck and Ted Cable in their book, “The Gift of Interpretation.” I’ve included questions to ask when thinking if a product is appropriate for your audience/store.

To learn more about Interpretation visit the National Association for Interpretation online, www.interpnet.com.

Article originally published June, 2014; updated November, 2020.

My Trip Photo Is in a National Wildlife Federation Article

Wow! One of my photos was selected by the National Wildlife Federation to use in their March 13, 2019 article, “Ten Big Wins For Land, Water and Wildlife.” The article celebrated the passage of the WILD ACT, which helped to create 30,000 acres of new wilderness in Oregon.

My photo was used on #6: A Path to Oregon’s Devil’s Staircase. The photo is of a Dark Grove giant from a trip I organized into the remote Devil’s Staircase area to help bring awareness to this amazing place. Here is my 2016 trip report with the image that was used in the NWF article. I’m so happy to have helped bring awareness to this beautiful area (in a small way) and to have spoken with the NWF while they were researching their article.

What’s in Your Backpack?


What gear do other backpackers use?

During the recent Backpackers’ Rendezvous 2017 held in Eugene, Oregon, I shared a printed spreadsheet detailing the various systems used by backpackers of all skills levels. Thinking in systems (rain system, footwear system, sleep system, etc.) is important because it can save you time, money, and reduce headaches. Enjoy the spreadsheet for yourself, may it help you better plan your own journeys. Thank you to everyone who contributed! Please note the spreadsheet is legal-sized and front and back. Download the PDF here.

Backpackers’ Rendezvous 2017

Volunteer Organizer: Mark Hougardy | Location: Eugene-based Hiking Group Lodge | Date: April 2017 | Duration: 1 day | Participants: 80+ | Type: Outreach Event

The Backpackers’ Rendezvous helps hikers, backpackers, and anyone curious about the trail to network, learn and do more with less. I’m happy to have organized the event and contributed to Eugene’s backpacking community.

An evening of rain, wind gusts, and downed trees could not deter seventy hearty folks of all ages and skill levels from attending the second Backpackers’ Rendezvous held at a local lodge in Eugene, Oregon.

The first hour included presentations from PCT and AT thru-hiker Chris “Scrub” Burke with tips on approaching a large hike, REI’s Mark “Jar-Jar” Lemaire on researching lightweight gear options, and Mark “Grub” Hougardy on five tips for starting a section hike on Oregon’s PCT.

Presenters from Left to Right: Mark “Grubb” Hougardy rendezvous organizer, Mark “Jar-Jar” Lemaire of REI, and Chris “Scrub” Burke a PCT/AT thru-hiker.

The second hour included knowledge tables, pack shakedowns, and interactions with local outdoor retailers and thought leaders, including lightweight ideas for the big three with REI-Eugene, staying warm and dry with Backcountry Gear; resources for making your own gear with the Rain Shed, staying safe outdoors with a hiking club’s safety committee, hiking Oregon’s coast with the National Coast Trail Association, and dry food options with Capella Market.

One of the best quotes during the event came from a woman in her thirties, “I want to go backpacking and don’t know where to start. I came here to find out more.” Thank you to everyone who helped enrich and strengthen the backpacking community in Eugene.

Chris “Scrub” Burke, PCT & AT thru-hiker shares his lightweight tips.

Mark “Jar-Jar” Lemaire of REI on “Lightweight Ideas for the Big Three, Starter Trips, & Navigation.”

Mark “Grub” Hougardy on “Want to Go Backpacking? Five Practical Ideas for Taking Those Next Steps”

America Needs You – Protect Laws That Help Wildlife Artwork

Science-based conservation is under attack! America’s environmental laws and natural treasures are under assault from the incoming administration in Washington. Laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act along with agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency could be gutted – taking America back to a time when pollution and bad water were commonplace. Hard fought protections are going backward. I created this to help artwork to help stand up for the environment and protect future generations. The following artwork is available to friends of the park and related outdoor organizations to advance their local outreach and fundraising during these challenging times. The artist Mark Hougardy can help with products that will aid in these efforts. America and its beauty are worth fighting for! – Copyright Mark Hougardy.

Visiting the Dark Grove – Devil’s Staircase Wilderness 2016

Trip Report:
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Date: June 12, 2016| Duration: 1 Day| Participants: 10 | Group: Eugene-based Hiking Club; As this was the first visit to a very remote location, for safety, I enlisted the help of Oregon Wild to introduce us to the area. | Hiking 5 miles (1,000-foot elevation loss/gain)
Type: Day Hike

The proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of rainforest left in the Coast Range. This impenetrable area has limited hiking trails or roads and is visited by only a few hundred people a year. Yet it remains unprotected despite the efforts of conservation groups and Oregon’s congressional delegation. To find out more about this compelling landscape, eleven hikers joined Chandra LeGue, the Western Oregon Field Coordinator at Oregon Wild, for a day of hiking to the Dark Grove. The Dark Grove has never been logged and is home to ancient trees that are 400-500 years old.

Our caravan of cars departed Eugene and meandered on back roads through the coast range. At one point, the green surroundings were cleaved from our sight as we drove through a wasteland of cut and darkened stumps: one member in the car likened the lifeless land to the desolated area at Mount St. Helens just after its eruption. This sight was a stark contrast to the lush biomass that we would encounter later that day.

About 15 miles northeast of Reedsport, we pulled off the pavement and slowly traveled up a single laned, overgrown backroad. Salmonberries grew in abundance here and scratched the sides of the car.

IMG_4548We parked at a junction and walked down an old logging road that was being reclaimed by the forest. Then we disappeared into the bushes, venturing down an elk trail. Posted on a tree was a sign that told us this was not the path to the Devil’s Staircase waterfall and unless you’re prepared to stay the night, and have Search and Rescue to look for you, to turn back. Fortunately, we had a guide for our inaugural visit.

The so-called “trail” was on loose soil and maintained a direct angle downward at 45-50 degrees. For the next hour and a half, we carefully descended 1,000 feet. Roots frequently caught our feet as we clamored over fallen logs and beneath large trees that had crashed across ravines and splintered. Ferns grew in abundance and they and helped us balance ourselves with their solid fronds. We quickly learned that ferns were our friends.

The weather that day was pleasant and sunny, though had our schedule been a day or two off, our visit might have been plagued with slippery trails.

Finally, the trail leveled out and we enjoyed lunch in an amphitheater-like area of fallen logs surrounded by a carpet of greenery. We saw a shadow over the canopy as a turkey vulture circled far overhead, no doubt curious to see if the humans had lost their way.

IMG_4571A forest of Salmonberries obstructed our path, so we made a trail straight up a ridge, then down into a forest of sword ferns. The ferns stood at five to six feet in height, so they engulfed us all and many of the shorter members traveled with their arms raised straight overhead. These tranquil glens often hid downed logs and it was easy to twist ankles or slam shins.

IMG_4577A fallen giant became our catwalk above the salmonberries, foxgloves, and ferns. We crossed a creek, but could barely see the water because of the thick undergrowth. Scampering down the side of the massive tree, we squatted and crawled through a small jungle, then emerged at the root base of the fallen giant – it was 25 feet tall!

IMG_4592In front of us was the Dark Grove, a cathedral of 8-foot wide Douglas Fir trees. The trees were dark in appearance, the result of fire about 150 years earlier. Touching the bark a charcoal residue was imprinted on fingers. The tree model is Becky Lipton.

blog-2016-06-dark-groveCrossing back across the fallen giant, we stood at the base of one of the largest trees we saw that day. Eight people stood at its base, arms outstretched and hands grasped. They counted one, two, three… their calls became muffled as they rounded the opposite side…the voices returned and the loop stopped – at seven and a half people! This immense tree was somewhere between 35 to 40 feet in circumference! Several hikers mentioned they felt like kids in a giant outdoor playground.

We continued through the ferns and back again along the ridge (which was unmarked on the Forest Service map). We lost the trail several times but finally found what we were looking for: a small rocky outcrop along Wasson Creek where the channeled water made a small waterfall for us to enjoy. We rested for half an hour in the sun.

The rest of the afternoon was spent returning via the same trail that we had descended earlier, which was a workout! At about 4 pm, we returned to our cars and started our two-hour drive back to Eugene.

This hike was a rugged and demanding off-trail experience, and all of us got scratched and dirty, some of us stung by insects, and one person had a fall (fortunately the ground was padded by an abundance of moss and there was no injury)! I understand why people get lost in this wilderness; even with directions, I could never have found this remote location. The sheer scale of the forest is very disorienting, but experiencing this place at ground level provides clarity as to why it needs to be protected.

Backpackers’ Rendezvous 2016

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Volunteer Organizer: Mark Hougardy | Location: Eugene-based Hiking Group Lodge | Date: April 30, 2016 | Duration: 1 day | Participants: 25 | Type: Outreach Event

Backpackers of all experience levels spread out their gear to share ideas and swap stories about backpacking. Of particular interest was the lightweight and ultra-light items and how they could help people do more with less. Twenty-five people attended to learn from other backpackers about what stove, sleeping bag or tent might best help them on the trail.

What’s in Your Water Bottle – Trip Report March, 2015

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Trip Report
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Group: Eugene-based Hiking Club | Date: March 13, 2015 | Participants: 15 | Hiking: 2 Miles | Type: Day Hike

We have all turned on the kitchen tap and filled up a bottle in preparation for a hike, but have you ever wondered what was in your bottle? Think about it – we all live downstream from somebody.

How does river water become the tap water we drink and how is wastewater made safe for wildlife and others downstream? To learn more, I organized a trip with a local hiking club to visit the local water intake and the wastewater facilities.

Our first visit was to the Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant, located adjacent to the McKenzie River, in Springfield. The facility is no small operation; it serves the needs of 200,000 people on a daily basis by removing water directly from the river, treating it, and finally delivering it to our taps.

Here are some observations from the visit:

  • The facility is very high-tech and water quality is measured at all stages of the process both by computer and by a human with hourly lab checks.
  • Security is paramount; the plant is gated with a security fence/gate, cameras are everywhere.
  • Our local water system has about two days of water reserves if there is a calamity.
  • On the day we visited the facility had processed and was sending out 16 million gallons (24 Olympic sized swimming pools) of water to the surrounding community.

Next, we traveled to the Eugene/Springfield Water Pollution Control Facility in Eugene. This is where all of the waste materials that go down the drain/flushed from our households and businesses in the greater Eugene metropolitan area (a quarter of a million people) are processed. The plant is located adjacent to the Willamette River. Our hour and a half visit was very informative:

  • More than 99% of what arrives at the facility is water; less than 1% are solid materials that need to be either removed or turned into bio-solids.
  • Most of the odoriferous gases are collected and used to power a generator that supplies 50-60% of the energy needs of the facility.
  • Waste materials can take up to 10 hours, once they leave your home until it reaches the wastewater facility; then wastewater can take another 10 hours to be processed. In short, waste materials take less than 24 hours until that water is returned to the river.
  • The amount of water being cleaned and being returned to the Willamette River that day was about 15 million gallons (roughly 23 Olympic swimming pools).
  • During the summer, the plant can process up to 70 million gallons per day (106 Olympic swimming pools) of wastewater!

I was fascinated to learn that on the Willamette River in Oregon there are about 25 wastewater treatment stations, and that does not include communities on the tributaries that flow into the Willamette! Just think about that…for every wastewater plant, there is likely a water intake facility that supplies drinking water for the next community downstream. If you live downstream you really want to know that the people upstream are taking care of your water – the water you drink, use for bathing, and for recreation.

If you’re curious about the water that goes into your water bottle start asking questions. Most water intake and wastewater plants are happy to host tours for small groups. Let them know you are interested in visiting.

Behind us is a 2-million gallons of water; the tank is actually a settling basin for any particulate matter.
Water Filtration Plant: Behind us is a 2-million gallon settling basin. This is used to settle any particulate matter in the water. This water was recently pulled from the McKenzie River.

A view an empty 2-million gallon setting tank.
Water Filtration Plant: A view an empty 2-million gallon setting basin.

Wastewater Treatment Facility: It looks like a really bad root-beer float, it is actually air being passed through the wastewater, this allows bacteria to better digest the waste.
Water Pollution Control Facility: It looks like a really bad root-beer float, it is actually air being passed through the wastewater, this allows bacteria to better digest the waste.

Treated water that is almost ready to be returned to the Willamette River.
Water Pollution Control Facility: Treated water that is almost ready to be returned to the Willamette River.

What about when the water is returned to the Willamette River? Find out more, read my post, Rafting the Upper Willamette River with the McKenzie River Trust; the majority of the photos were taken only a few miles downstream from Eugene’s wastewater treatment facility.

Increasing Volunteerism with the Nature Conservancy of Oregon

In the spring and summer of 2014, I enjoyed volunteering my services with the Nature Conservancy of Oregon (Southwest office). My role was to help grow participation by the local volunteering community. My services included upgrading their email management tool (to Constant Contact) and designing several newsletters.

Here are some examples:
> Saturday Spring Work Parties (pdf)
> June Newsletter “Thank You Table Rock Leaders” (pdf)
> July Newsletter “Freedom to Volunteer” (welcome article by Mark – pdf)

Rafting the Upper Willamette River with the McKenzie River Trust

Living near the Willamette River in Eugene, Oregon, offers some fun opportunities to be outside, yet after living in the area for two years I am surprised that I don’t know my local section of the river better. When the opportunity arose to experience 12+ miles of the upper Willamette (from Eugene downstream to Marshall Island) by raft and learn about important conservation work taking place, I could not refuse.

The morning of our departure, my family and I, along with about fifteen others were greeted by staff members of the McKenzie River Trust who had organized the event, and the Eugene Recreation Center who supplied the rafts, equipment and river guides. An interpretive river ranger from Oregon State Parks also joined our trio of rafts.

We were treated to hearing stories about river-lore, discovering the natural history, and learning about the McKenzie River Trust’s restoration work of 1,100-acres on Green Island. A highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the island where everyone enjoyed a fabulous lunch provided by the guides.

On the river that day we saw beaver signs of gnawed tree limbs, cranes stealthily stalking along the shore, and ospreys calling from overhead, though we ourselves were often under the watchful eyes of eagles.

There were many “take-aways” from the trip, lessons that stay with you after the trip is over. The big takeaway for me was that once we left Eugene how quickly the river became more of what I needed it to be: open and wild. I want to experience more.

Here are some pictures of the river-

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Learn more about Green Island and the work of the McKenzie River Trust visit:

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Sequoia and Kings Canyon Interpretive Images by Mark Hougardy

I’m proud to have worked with the Sequoia Natural History Association for the past five years. My images helped the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks communicate their value to an enthusiastic public and generated revenue to support visitor outreach and interpretive services. [The Sequoia Natural History Association and Sequoia Parks Foundation merged in 2017 to become the Sequoia Parks Conservancy]