The Early Years
A park ranger handling a rattlesnake.
The Florida Park Service was formally created by the Florida Legislature in 1935 and by the next year nine state parks had been designated. These parks were planned, developed and staffed in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Thus first real Florida Park Service interpreters were CCC camp 'enrollees.' By 1936 each state park had enrollees who were assigned to be park guides to furnish information about the park and help visitors find ways to enjoy the park. Plans were underway to make this a dedicated job and to provide training to the guides. CCC enrollees gave regular tours at Highlands Hammock, Florida Caverns and Fort Clinch, even before the parks were officially opened. The early park development plans, guided by National Park Service supervisors, included nature trails and trail signs. The first museums in the fledgling state park system were already planned for Fort Clinch in 1935 to display fort artifacts and soon thereafter for Florida Caverns.
Hillsborough River State Park superintendent Oscar Baynard took the lead in interpretation from his hiring in 1936 to the closure of the CCC camps over 1940-1942. Highlands Hammock hired a park naturalist as early as 1941, and records document park naturalists at Florida Caverns and Gold Head Branch in 1942. Carol Beck was hired as the Florida Park Service botanist in 1942 to work with Baynard (she was later named FPS's first Chief Naturalist in 1966). Baynard and Beck produced many brochures -- tree, flower and bird lists -- and signs, labels and other interpretive materials used at all the early state parks.
A park ranger leads a cave tour at Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna.
In 1944, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs began nature camps for college women, which were held at different parks. One of these was at Wekiwa Springs, where a camp for children and youth continues today (Wekiwa became a state park in 1969). Highlands Hammock began tram tours as early as 1945. School teachers were provided nature education at four state parks by 1947. Also beginning in 1947, the first statewide naturalist, William Harmon, provided guidance and support to parks in the development of interpretive programs and also provided extensive photographic support. Botanist Carol Beck also continued to build the statewide system of natural resource interpretation, and by 1948 tree labels had been installed on most nature trails under her leadership, and she also traveled from Highlands Hammock to other parks to conduct the nature walks and tours.
By the late 1940s, park interpretation had expanded to include nature camps under the direction of a Recreation Supervisor and staffed by teachers and college graduates. The Florida Park Service provided camp counselor training for the staff, who taught nature study and outdoor skills to campers. After the transfer of a number of state-owned (but privately managed) historic sites to the Florida Park Service in 1949 and 1950, regular guided walks and tours were established at most state parks.
Park Ranger Joe Kenner crouched with camera in hand ready to snap a photograph.
Formal interpretive plans were being developed for parks during the early 1950s to meet the increasing need. Prior to that time, historic markers and signage were still the primary outdoor interpretive methods in most parks. During the 1950s, the first buildings specifically built as park museums were constructed at John Gorrie Historic State Park and Constitution Convention Historic State Park. To support the development of professional quality museum exhibits and displays, the Florida State Museum at the University of Florida began producing educational exhibits for state parks, including for these two museums. At Fort Clinch, Duncan L. Clinch, grandson of the fort's namesake, donated funds to make improvement to the fort including the reconstruction of the Guard House to house the fort museum and installation of new exhibits.
In 1966, park rangers at Hillsborough River began conducting interpretive programs on their own time, including campfire programs, indoor programs, guided walks and appearances on Tampa TV Morning Shows. They trained themselves using National Park Service interpretive booklets. In 1968, the agency sent one representative from each of the six districts (four park managers and two park rangers) for a week of naturalist training at the National Audubon Society camp at Greenwich, Connecticut. Two naturalists then 'split the state' to provide services to the individual parks. The same year, the first District Interpretive Workshop was conducted to train park rangers from each of the district's parks.
In 1969, there was an initiative to improve statewide coordination in the system. Five naturalist positions were created and were assigned to five of the six district offices.
Each District Naturalist, among their other duties, held interpretive workshops for park rangers. Prior to the interpretive workshops, park programs were more for entertainment than education, information was often inaccurate, and the programs were generally ineffective. Over the next few years, parks expanded nature trails, installed additional outdoor exhibits and interpretive signs, installed campfire circles for evening campground programs, purchased slide projection equipment and the district naturalists developed slide programs for common topics (e.g., Snakes of Florida), which were copied and sent to many parks. Interpretive spiels were written for every standard tour to insure that they were professional and accurate. Some concessionaires also provided interpretive programming, especially on their boat tours, like those at Myakka River State Park and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, added in the 1960s.
Another innovation of the 1970s was the development of living history programs where staff portrayed actual or composite historic figures and provided visitors with an experience of life in another time. This effort also included the development of large-scale re-enactments of historic battles at Olustee, Dade and Natural Bridge battlefields, where today hundreds of volunteer re-enactors continue to portray the drama of those battles. Many other parks have added smaller historic re-enactments to enhance the visitors' experience.
During the 1970s, exhibit planning, design and fabrication were handled in-house by the Bureau of Biological and Interpretive Services. This continued until 1992 when the larger design and fabrication operations were discontinued. From 1992-2004, small projects continued to be designed in-house, exhibit plans were developed and Bureau of Natural and Cultural Resources staff served as coordinators and managers for the contracted projects.
The District Naturalists (called District Biologists since 1986) continued coordinating interpretive training until reorganization in 1988 added an Education and Training Specialist to each district office. During the 1990s, parks became involved in environmental education, which differed from park interpretation by tying programming to specific Florida educational curricula. Several environmental education centers, which included facilities like laboratories, outdoor meeting space and classrooms, were added in parks to facilitate these activities. The Silver River Environmental Education Center, built in the state park by Marion County and opened in 1991, is a good example.
The Bureau of Natural and Cultural Resources designated an Interpretative Coordinator position during 1993-1994. An Interpretive Steering Committee was assembled and in 1994 Basic Interpretive Training became a requirement for all new Park Rangers. Advanced Interpretive Training was also offered to develop skills beyond the basic level. A Statewide Interpretive Training meeting was held once a year in different locations and many parks established Interpretive Committees that met monthly. Also in the 1990s, volunteers assumed greater responsibilities for interpretation to help meet the demand. A park-specific Statement for Interpretation, adapted from the National Park Service model for interpretive plans, became a requirement around 1995. In 1996, annual awards were established for a district-level, peer-nominated Interpreter of the Year and a statewide Interpreter of the Year award was established.
Park visitors gaze at a wildlife exhibit at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Program accessibility became a priority in the late 1990s and various training sessions were conducted, including audio description, disability awareness and interpretive techniques and adaptations. Accessible exhibits guidelines were also developed and based on Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
In 2004 the statewide coordination of interpretation was relocated into the Bureau of Operational Services, but increasingly interpretive training has been handled at the district level by the Education and Training Specialists. In 2008, Essential Eligibility Criteria were established for all interpretive programs and the Universal Trail Accessibility Process (UTAP) was implemented for trails.
Interpretation has been an integral part of state park programming since the early days of the Florida Park Service. Like other elements of the system, it has evolved and grown in sophistication over the years, and continues today with high quality programs in many areas of public interest, including interpretive talks, living history, roving interpretation, recreational skills programs, tours, ranger-guided programs and demonstrations, as well as a full range of non-personal interpretation opportunities like exhibits, DVDs, interactive computers, self-guided trails, kiosks and traveler information stations.