A walk in the park

FirstGov Web site

For Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society, FirstGov worked pretty much as advertised when Federal Computer Week asked her to conduct a search on the site.

Unlike many cases when the desired Web page or document is buried 10, 20 or even 30 results deep, FirstGov twice turned up exactly what she was looking for within the first five results. Only a third test stumped the search engine.

Sloan, who frequently visits Web sites developed by the National Park Service and the Forest Service, was new to FirstGov. "I'm not very Web-savvy, but it turned out to be pretty easy to use," Sloan said. "It didn't get everything I was looking for, but it got just about everything."

The American Hiking Society is a nonprofit conservation organization focused on recreation. Sloan tracks bills and policies that might hinder or improve access to trails on public lands.

For example, Sloan wanted information on how different states use entrance fees to support park activities and conservation programs. A Forest Service page listing such programs turned up as the third result when she entered "forest fees" to search both federal and Maryland Web sites.

She got similar results searching for how Florida has spent the money it has received through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress created the fund in 1964 to bankroll federal, state and local government efforts to buy and maintain land, water and wetlands as public parks.

A search of Florida Web sites using the conservation fund's name turned up a Bureau of Design and Recreation Services page detailing how the state has received more than $10 million since its first grant in 1967.

FirstGov failed Sloan only when she looked for information on a recent proposal to put a new trail through Grand Canyon National Park. The proposal had been open for public comment because the park intended to allow bicyclists as well as hikers on the trail; national parks traditionally do not allow bikes on hiking trails.

Although the comment period had just ended, a search for the proposal — using various combinations of Grand Canyon National Park, hiking, biking and public comment—came up empty. But Yahoo, given similar search terms, also failed to turn up the document.

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