Park Service puts R&R resources on Web

The arrival of spring means that practically everyone's favorite time of year vacation sits right around the corner. For many families, summer vacation includes a visit to a national park. ParkNet, the World Wide Web site of the National Park Service (www.nps.gov), definitely reduces the effort

The arrival of spring means that practically everyone's favorite time of year - vacation - sits right around the corner. For many families, summer vacation includes a visit to a national park.

ParkNet, the World Wide Web site of the National Park Service (www.nps.gov), definitely reduces the effort required to plan a summer visit to parks ranging from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to Yellowstone National Park. All you need are some simple mouse clicks and the Park Service's well-organized and clutter-free home page.

The ParkNet home page is simplicity in action, providing users with just eight powerful links that will take visitors from the untrammeled wilderness of the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska to the much more heavily visited Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, just a day trip from the Washington-Baltimore-Richmond megalopolis.

Visitors to the site can easily make this geographical leap between parks on both sides of the United States by clicking the Visit Your Parks link displayed prominently on the bottom left side of the home page. This link leads to another page that serves as the jumping-off point for a general or specific park search, through Find a Park links that enable visitors to search by region, name, theme or map.

The Visit Your Parks page also provides direct links to marvelous online versions of the information-packed, easy-to-use paper maps produced by the Park Service's Publications Division in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. These are not mere line drawings but full-featured maps available in a variety of formats, including Adobe Systems Inc.'s Illustrator, Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format and high-resolution JPEG.

Even the Adobe PDF maps provide more than enough information to plan a visit to a particular park, such as Assateague. The printed black-and-white Assateague map clearly delineates the location of campsites, access roads, beaches and park roads.

After scoping out the location of the campgrounds, the next step for a ParkNet visitor is to click back to the Visit Your Parks page and then zip to the new online-reservations feature, which was tested in a pilot project last year and rolled out to a wide number of parks this spring.

The online reservation system is well-organized and highly detailed, listing at Assateague the location of all the campgrounds in the park, the number of sites at each campground and a description of each campground. A toggle on the reservation menu lets the user easily select reservation dates and the length of stay.

Click on the Accept Restrictions, Check Availability button at the bottom of that menu, and the online system will produce, in the case of Assateague, exactly the same results that a user would get by calling the Park Service's toll-free reservation number: If you want a campsite at that park practically any weekend in the summer, forget it. The same results were gained when seeking reservations for Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

Despite the difficulty of finding a campsite at a popular park in the summer, the online reservation system already has proved its utility, according to Steve Pittleman, the Park Service's Webmaster. "We've already processed 6,000 reservations online" since starting up the nationwide reservation system on Park Net this spring, he said. Foreign visitors to the United States find the online reservation system particularly useful "because you cannot call an 800 number from overseas," Pittleman said.

Pittleman, who described himself as "a self-taught Webmaster who grew up with the Web," said use of ParkNet this spring already has eclipsed last year's use, averaging 1 million hits a day now compared with 800,000 a day just one year ago.

Pittleman, who started his career as a law enforcement officer on the C&O Canal and then moved into public affairs, said ParkNet generates this much traffic because it serves as a launch pad to Web sites maintained by the individual parks.

ParkNet derives its richness from the parks themselves, which have wholeheartedly embraced the Web as a communications tool. Pittleman said he recently held a class for Park Service Webmasters, "and we had 75 people apply for 25 positions."

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