New Friends board member helps train Colombian national park rangers

Indoor session in Colombia

October 3, 2022

What do you do when you retire from sharing the stories of our national parks with thousands of park visitors for 40 years? One option is to teach others how to do it well.

Newly-elected Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore board member Neil Howk recently joined a small group of retired National Park Service employees sharing their knowledge, experience, and some practical tools for planning and implementing the interpretation of the natural and cultural heritage with their counterparts in the National Natural Park System (PNN) of Colombia.

Otun Quimbaya nature reserve

Otún Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary

66 PNN park rangers representing all 44 of Colombia’s protected areas that are open for visitors attended the workshop, organized by the non-profit International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF), an educational foundation based in Washington, D.C. 

The learning event took place in August, at the Otún Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, a 1,200 acre mountainous preserve along the Otún River.

The park is located in the coffee-growing region on the western slope of Colombia’s central mountain range.

Participating rangers included a culturally diverse group that worked in protected areas from the Caribbean Sea to the Andes Mountains and from the Pacific Ocean to the Amazon River basin. Howk says the level of professionalism, participation, interest, and enthusiasm among participants was very high. 

Outdoor session in Colombia

An outdoor session

Most of the presentations were delivered as PowerPoint or flip chart lectures and discussions, with activities, followed by very interactive question/answer sessions. Topics included: Interpretation as a communication tool, what interpretation is and how it works, audience assessments, how interpretation contributes to management of protected areas, the interpretive process model for developing interpretive programs, an approach to engaging local community residents, interpretive program evaluation, interpretive media evaluation, visitor experiences and enjoyment, interpretation techniques, informal interpretation, and leadership skills of the heritage interpreter.

Special programs included celebrating the sanctuary’s 26th birthday with Otún Quimbaya staff.

The next day, workshop participants were divided into four smaller groups for interpretive tours along Otún Quimbaya trails.

Evaluation and discussions of the tours’ interpretive components followed upon return to the classroom.

Interpretive tours along Otún Quimbaya trails

Interpretive tours along Otún Quimbaya trails

Rangers view the Otún River

The Otún River (Rio Otún) is a primary resource of the Otún Quimbaya Sanctuary. Neil got up early one morning to take a bird hike with a few of the Colombian rangers before the workshp sessions started. They walked down to the river where they saw some white-capped dippers and torrent tyrranulets.

At the conclusion of the event, attendees received diplomas in an enthusiastic ceremony signifying their participation in this first-of-its-kind workshop. Afterwards, many celebrated with a dance and graduation party lasting til early the next morning.

The ICCF/Conservation Corps Interpretation team included Diane Chalfant, Neil Howk, Sam Vaughn, and Sally Plumb from the United States.  Two skilled translators from Colombia, Danitza Erzisnik and Alexandra Yang, assisted by translating the material to Spanish for rangers who used portable listening devices.

Neil Howk and colleagues

Sally Plumb, Diane Chalfant and Neil Howk join three Colombian park rangers for a photograph, one of many photos taken following the graduation ceremony on the last day of the workshop.

Neil Howk helping a young naturalist identify birds

The young man with the camera is Martin, the 12-year-old son of one of the rangers at Otún Quimbaya. Neil says Martin is an amazing naturalist who lives just outside the park and comes over after school every day to photograph birds. In the photo he is showing Neil pictures of a bird he photographed and Neil is trying to identify the bird using the Merlin app on his phone.

Neil Howk was not the only member of the interpretation team with experience working in the Apostle Islands. Diane Chalfant, featured in our Lakeshore Logbook series, served as the park’s Chief of Interpretation in the late 1980s. She began working with the ICCF Conservation Corps interpretive team in 2019 and extended the invitation to Neil to join the group.

Howk says all reports indicate that the workshop was an overwhelming success. PNN and the International Conservation Caucus Foundation are now discussing follow-up projects.

Photos and report by Neil Howk

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