Inspiring Art in the Parks


We took a drive yesterday from our home in Fort Collins, Colorado, to Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy the scenery. It was perfect timing to enjoy the fall color in the mountains from 8,000 to 10,000 feet elevation, a beautiful sunny day with mild temperatures. Blue, our Australian Cattle Dog, came along to enjoy the smells of a new place as only a dog can.


art3These days it is usual to see people with cameras photographing everything in a park. We passed many people with their phones out to take scenery or wildlife photos or selfies with the stunning scenery in background. And of course, some had bigger single lens reflex cameras with telephoto lenses mounted on tripods for professional quality shots.


As we drove past Sheep Meadow, we saw no sheep, but perched on a rocky outcrop, a group of three older women clustered around their easels, each painting her individual impressions of the views. Below, an artist was standing waist deep in the grasses with an umbrella providing shade as he created a painting of the magnificent valley, striped with yellow aspens, that leads up to Trail Ridge Road.


We drove up to Hidden Valley and stopped to enjoy a picnic lunch surrounded by golden and red-orange clumps of aspens with shimmering, almost iridescent leaves. Another artist just art1fifty feet from us captured the vivid scenery on canvas. Every few minutes someone would stroll up behind her to get a look at her work and take a photo of her in the foreground and her object of art in background.


We turned south into Bear Valley and then back west in a stream valley noted for elk being easily seen. We immediately saw an artist working on an interesting painting of the trunk of a fallen tree in the foreground with Long’s Peak in the background.


Artists in national parks are not new, but seeing so many artists out in one day surprised me in a good way. Before there were parks in the United States, artists like Catlin, Remington and Russell created works of art that have becoming enduring images of the time and place before the changes brought first by settlers and later by tourists. Their works of art are part of our understanding of the culture of the times. Ansel Adams took black and white photos in Yosemite and other parks that show how photography can leap beyond being a recollection into being memorable art.


art2Despite the beauty, accuracy and immediacy of photographs, we still value the singular interpretations of beauty that artists, photographers, musicians and writers provide. National parks have been leaders in artist-in-residence programs that allow longer stays in unique settings to inspire their work. Forty national parks of the four hundred in the NPS system now have these programs. While working on their own art, they also teach classes in some of the most inspiring places in the nation.


Nature centers, zoos, aquariums, museums, historic sites and heritage communities also have such programs. They sometimes include classes to help novice artists or photographers improve their craft. If you have not facilitated art at your site or community, think about the opportunity to stimulate people of all ages to find their own niche in personal art in the outdoors or a unique science, museum, aquarium or historic setting.


As I look around our home, often called a museum of sorts by our friends, I realize that most of our displayed works of art are handmade paintings, wood carvings, and crafts, not photographs taken by us or others. I am an avid photographer, but inspiration comes in many forms. Think about how you might create opportunities for inspiration where you work. And don’t forget to get out somewhere and enjoy the fall color change.


– Tim Merriman





Five Things to Think About Before Outsourcing

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Placing segments of your business with a contractor can help you take advantage of specialized skill sets needed for a short period of time or intermittent services. Business entrepreneurs rely on outsourcing as they start new businesses. But many businesses choose to outsource without consideration of the potential side effects of doing so. To make sure you’re getting the most from outsourcing, think about these five key issues:


  • Never outsource your core businesses to a contractor, even if the potential contractor is a valued partner or key stakeholder. Your organization is (or should be) known and valued for its core services and products because you do those things better than anyone else. As soon as you allow anyone to manage and deliver your core business activities, you run the risk of losing the brand that establishes your very identity. The contractors become known for your having your supposed expertise, not your organization. If your contractors deliver a core service, they also have incentive to upsell their own abilities in that area rather than representing the interests of the organization. You will invariably lose market share to those you are trusting to help you.
  • Be sure your contractor can deliver non-core services at a higher standard than you can. Use references and check the performance record of contractors carefully before you hand off responsibilities for an important function. Banks, credit card companies, and web service providers are examples of contractors that can handle specific financial and tech services more skillfully and securely because they usually have access to technology a small business or nonprofit lacks.
  • Some business services are too proprietary or vital to management to outsource – Allowing a contractor to handle key services that include stakeholder data that is sensitive, such as donor information, can be problematic. I view bookkeeping/accounting as an area best handled by staff because of the potential for misuse of data. The exception is to outsource an external audit as a check on internal business practices. I once used an accounting contractor who did not file federal reports on time, resulting in the IRS seizing my bank accounts. Trusting a contractor with your most critical management information and analytical approaches can be a problem if they are not exceptional in their interest in serving your needs.
  • Outsourcing must be to contractors who share your values – We have all seen mainstream vendors lose customers to the revelation that their products violate human rights or environmental ethics. Nonprofits and government agencies are held to even higher standards for selecting contractors who operate ethically, legally and generally with a compatible philosophy to that of the contracting business. Be sure your “due diligence” includes finding out who does the work, how it is done and where it is done.
  • Outsourcing can achieve economies of scale – Many smaller organizations can outsource payroll services, health savings accounts, insurance, benefits management, maintenance and other services as part of a larger pool of similar organizations. Your business may lack the volume to get the best discounts on services, but in a pool you might be purchasing at volume rates. Some organizations specialize in helping you with pooled resources.


Outsourcing has its place in businesses of all sizes, but be sure you understand how it makes your organization stronger and better before you execute those contracts.


– Tim Merriman





Loving It to Life – A Nature Center is Born

Kahaluu Bay is a great place to see Green Sea Turtles while snorkeling, but respect is essential to their health and survival.

This is a great place to see Green Sea Turtles while snorkeling, but respect is essential to their health and survival.



Kahalu‘u Beach Park is one of those unique places where the resource surprises visitors, charms them and brings them back. I have been visiting this shallow bay on the traditional sacred grounds of the ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty) for 27 years. It’s four miles south of Kailua-Kona and walking distance from where we usually stay when we visit the Big Island of Hawaii. The shallow, warm water is a sanctuary for over 100 species of fish including many endemics, found only in the Hawaiian Islands.



Kahalu‘u is one of the most visited sites on the Big Island. Sea turtles predictably feed around the edge of the bay. Eels poke in and out of holes in the large coral formations. Puffers, Moorish idols, parrot fish, wrasses and butterflyfish of myriad kinds are common. It’s a great place to learn to snorkel but also an easy place to accidentally trample the coral or fall on the lava rock shoreline and hurt yourself.


Signs have helped people understand that the still lumps on reefs are living animals that can be easily harmed by people.

Signs have helped people understand that the still lumps on reefs are living animals that can be easily harmed by people.

In about 2000, the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant program used citizen scientists to monitor the vulnerable coral of the shallow bay. Volunteers monitoring transects informed the coordinators that public use was destroying this incredibly accessible sanctuary. The beauty of this amazing place could easily have slipped away from people loving it to death. Soon the Sea Grant program put up signs to give people advice about not standing on coral, walking on the sand for safety, not feeding the fish and leaving the sea turtles to rest or feed. It helped but might not have been enough since few people stop to read signs in a recreational setting.


A reef etiquette talk while renting equipment starts a better experience.

A reef etiquette talk while renting equipment starts a better experience.

In 2006, the Sea Grant program passed the role of protector of the bay on county property to The Kohala Center, a nonprofit committed to being a “community-based center for research, conservation and education.” Their ReefTeach program has blossomed under the supervision of program director, Cindi Punihaole. Jean Bevanmarquez began her work at Kahalu‘u as a volunteer monitor under the Sea Grant program. Since joining the staff three years ago she took over day-to-day management of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center in 2011, which now coordinates more than 250 ReefTeach volunteers and three full-time staff equivalents. For years ReefTeach volunteers have met people on the shallow sandy trail into the water and briefed them on reef etiquette. Cindi explained, “we have trained over 400 ReefTeach volunteers since 2006.  We educate between 1,300 – 1,900 students each year on reef etiquette.” All of these efforts have made a dramatic difference evidenced by the recovery of formerly battered coral formations.


The white tents and rental signs invite people over to talk and the interpretation begins.

The white tents and rental signs invite people over to talk and the interpretation begins.

In 2011, the county parks department granted The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u  Bay Education Center concession rights for the area, and a mobile nature center was born. Each morning the blue ReefTeach van arrives, staff buries an extension cord, sets up three or four 10×10 tarps and arranges tables to do business. Hundreds of unprepared visitors arrive daily so rental of snorkel gear and sale of basic beach items generates revenue to support the center’s education and volunteer program. More importantly the center’s presence starts the conversation with people. Jean and staff help people get proper fitting mask and fins, and then they share a simple flipchart lesson or a fun video on how to behave in the bay.


Yi Pei, a student and volunteer from Taiwan donates time with ReefTeach to gain experience.

Yi Pei, a student and volunteer from Taiwan donates time with ReefTeach to gain experience.


ReefTeach volunteers continue to meet snorkelers as they enter the water but many now get the reef lessons while renting equipment. Some come back to the van to use a field guide or ID cards to put a name with a colorful fish they see. Some have questions about the area and staff and volunteers have answers. Jean explained to me that the program is nearly self-supporting now with rental fees, sales income, and donations. It is a nature center that appears each morning and disappears each evening, doing a job of educating people and making lasting friends for the bay, the island, The Kohala Center, and outdoor living in general.


Many beautiful places we visit around the world could use this kind of program as a way to build a presence and provide education. The good shepherds of ReefTeach, the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center, and The Kohala Center take care of this special place and it’s a little better every time we visit. Finally, Kahalu‘u is being loved to life.


– Tim Merriman

4 Ways to Improve Your Call to Action

Donation boxes work better when they tie to the place's theme and explain how funds will be used.

Donation boxes work better when they tie to the place’s theme and explain how funds will be used.



Provoking further thought or action is an idea we often make reference to in the business of conservation, interpretation and social marketing. How many times have you seen this phrase on a website, brochure, or exhibit: You Can Help – Here’s How! We want people to do their part and make a difference in the world, but some requests are more likely to yield results than others. Here’s four ways to improve your call to action.





  1. The task should be easily completed and within the ability of most folks. You can ask people to carry a reusable bag to the grocery store, sign a petition, share the message, make a small donation, clean up their local environment or volunteer to work at a local event. When you make the tasks to get involved very complex or expensive, few will make the effort. Frame the request clearly so they know what to do and how much time and money investment they might be in for. Research into donor websites have shown that making people click multiple times from page to page will chase away the donors. aptly demonstrates that “ease of use” matters. They have One-click purchasing and easy to navigate order forms. People need a simple, direct way to get involved and help, whether signing up to volunteer, donating money or being an advocate.
  2. The requested task actually makes a difference. It’s important to know that your request is actually helpful and not merely symbolic or worse yet, the wrong thing to do for some reason. What you encourage people to do should be consistent with your organizational mission. If you invite gifts to a charity (other than your own), have you checked out the organization and know their funds go where intended, directly and efficiently? The recent ALS Challenge is brilliant from a social media standpoint and has raised funds for a worthy charitable cause. However, it has also raised the question of how dumping clean water and ice on the ground is a “good thing to do.” And should our donation commitments be based on celebrity “kitchy” requests or deeper and growing commitments to what we wish to support? Hitting “Like” on Facebook is a fun and easy way to participate, but does it lead to any real support for a program or campaign of real value?
  3. The requested task has a sustainable value. When you ask people to do things that build their understanding of environmental or social problems, they will often look for other ways to be involved. Inviting folks to clean up a river valley, work at a recycling center, or contribute household items to a worthy program can build a sense of ownership and demonstrate the longer-term effects of the action. They grow in understanding and often in commitment to helping further.
  4. There is some easy and visible way to measure progress towards success. If you invite people to donate, volunteer or otherwise participate it is helpful if you can report how the effort performs. I once led a Clean Up the Rivers annual event in Pueblo, Colorado, and we could visibly report the cubic yards collected by volunteers. We actually flipped our measures of success after a few years to other measures like “volunteer hours” contributed because the task had shifted from pulling car bodies out of the river to picking up pop can tab tops and cigarette butts. We wanted people to know they had accomplished the original task. The rivers became so clean due to their efforts that the waste stream was reduced.
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program helps people remember which fish are sustainably harvested with a handy pocket guide.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program helps people remember which fish are sustainably harvested with a handy pocket guide.


The approach you use to provoke further thought or action can make the difference between getting real, measurable results or falling off your audience’s radar. Keep challenging people to take next steps, and you may just get what you ask for.


– Tim Merriman