The BLM’s Discovery Hill trail system uses technology to engage youth
Local students wrote and narrated short podcasts to educate visitors of the trail about natural and local history.
Liz Townley loves podcasts. When she is driving or exercising, she listens to podcasts on leadership, National Public Radio stories, or lighthearted programs. “One guilty pleasure,” Townley confessed, “is Alec Baldwin’s ‘Here’s the Thing.’”
So, when the Bureau of Land Management recreation planner was thinking about ways to encourage young people to use and take care of public lands, the idea of podcasts came to mind.
Townley’s vision became reality in Salmon, Idaho, with the Discovery Hill podcast loop, a 1.6-mile trail that features six numbered markers that signal a podcast stop. Local students have helped write and narrate short podcasts about the Lewis and Clark history of the area, wildlife that call Discovery Hill home, the community of Salmon, other activities that happen in the popular recreation area, and a reminder to use the area with respect.
Young people are more likely to be respectful of the area because they were so involved in the project’s development. The Salmon High School volleyball team helped improve the trail itself, high school art students custom painted the metal headphone markers on the trail, and middle school and high school students’ voices host the podcasts.
“This is the classic stewardship model,” Townley explains. “You give people the knowledge; with that knowledge comes ownership; and with ownership comes stewardship. We have kids volunteering to take care of these trails now, and that’s the whole idea.”
The innovative approach to interpretation and youth involvement has gained national recognition. In 2014, the American Recreation Coalition honored the BLM Salmon Field Office with the Beacon Award, which recognizes innovative use of technology in visitor services and recreation management. The project was also the awarded a Coalition for Recreational Trails annual achievement award. Bureau of Land Management funded the project with a grant from the Recreational Trails Program through Idaho's state trails program.
The project is only in its infancy though, says Salmon Valley Stewardship environmental education coordinator Rachel Layman. Salmon Valley Stewardship partnered with the BLM to follow through with community outreach and education suggestions that emerged during BLM travel planning.
“Some of the heavy lifting has been done,” Layman explained. “We now have a designated trail space and the numbered posts installed. We certainly had a learning curve figuring out the technology to produce this initial series of podcasts, but we now know how to efficiently record, edit, and upload the podcasts on iTunes so we can make them publicly available.”
“But the possibilities for content are quite literally endless,” she added. Unlike traditional interpretive signs that can be costly to begin with and then require maintenance or replacement over time, the podcasts can be more dynamic and less expensive.
Walking the trail in May, the delicate bitterroot is blooming in unusually large patches thanks to the spring rains. But there are also signs of mountain bike ruts from riding in the mud. “We could do a seasonal podcast series, highlighting the wildflowers in the spring, mentioning why we try to stay off the trails when they are muddy, talking about strutting sage grouse, and the cattle drives that happen this time of year,” Layman said.
“Eventually it would be great to see students creating a new series every year,” she said. “The scripts have the power to make the same trail new again.”
Karla Sigala is an interpretive specialist for the National Park Service Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The Corps of Discovery (thus the name Discovery Hill) traveled through these foothills to avoid the then swampy Salmon River in 1805. NPS helped kick start the project with a technical assistance grant, and Sigala hiked the podcast loop on one of her trips to Idaho.
She says the deep involvement of the community and especially youth make the Discovery Hill project special. “This isn’t top down information that is being pushed on the youth. The students played a role in selecting what to highlight and they’ve been involved every step of the way,” Sigala said.
“Hard signs are difficult to change, but the technology of a podcast allows information to change quickly,” she noted.
Another aspect of the podcast loop that Sigala holds up as a model is the close partnership between the BLM, Salmon Valley Stewardship, and the Salmon Schools. “The way Salmon Valley Stewardship worked side-by-side with the BLM was key,” Sigala stated, noting that BLM has faced budget and personnel tightening.
The podcast loop is far from the only activity at Discovery Hill. A network of mountain bike trails is becoming increasingly popular with riders from across the west, and there are also many trails for off-highway vehicles, as well as a motocross park. Remote controlled airplane pilots enjoy their own landing strip, and others fly Frisbees at the 18-hole disc golf course. The BLM-managed lands are also a great place to walk dogs, ride horses, or in the winter, snowshoe.
The Discovery Hill podcast loop is approximately two miles northeast of Salmon, an extremely scenic and remote town of 3,000 situated between the Continental Divide Trail and the Salmon River Mountains.