Hey National Parks: You Need More Webcams

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a place of unparalleled resources. It’s studded with over a dozen active volcanoes and protects the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. Its lakes and rivers are swarmed annually by millions of salmon. Abundant food and an undeveloped landscape provides habitat for over 2,000 brown bears, more than any other national park. For 9,000 years people have made it their home, adapting to the landscape’s constant change and challenges.

pumice covered landscape with volcano in background

Mount Griggs towers behind Baked Mountain in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

As a park, it’s very remote and expensive to experience. Its coastline, measuring over 400 miles, and almost all of the rest of the 4.1 million-acre park remain roadless. For nearly a century after its establishment, Katmai was only accessible to people who could afford to visit and were physically capable of doing so. Webcams (bearcams) changed that.

Webcams allowed Katmai National Park to democratize itself, providing audiences all over the world with meaningful opportunities to connect with the park, especially its bears, and build stewards on a global scale. Survey results* indicate watching the bearcams increased viewer interest in Katmai and wildlife conservation, and viewers’ interest in national parks and wildlife conservation is on par with on-site visitors. Essentially, webcams can inspire stewardship on the same level as a physical visit to a park. They are powerful interpretive tools with great potential to increase awareness, understanding, and stewardship of wildlife and conservation areas. Yet, national parks rarely utilize webcams to their full potential and online audiences are either ignored or deemed secondary to on-site visitors. This needs to change.

bear sitting on rock in river

Bear 708 Amelia sits on a rock–a typical scene on Katmai’s webcams.

Inspired by the success of Katmai’s webcams and to communicate the need to utilize them in more places, I’ll be leading a session at the 2017 National Association of Interpretation Conference. Roy Wood, Katmai’s former Chief of Interpretation and the current Chief of Interpretation and Education at Shenandoah National Park, and Ryan Sharp, Assistant Professor of Park Management and Conservation at Kansas State University will join me. Roy and I will discuss our methods to interpret bears, salmon, and other park resources to online audiences. Ryan will present survey results exploring the online bear viewing experience at Katmai and its influence on support for bear conservation and management.

screen shot of description of conference presentation

If you’re interested in watching but can’t  attend, don’t worry. A presentation about Katmai’s bearcams wouldn’t be complete if it wasn’t streamed live on bearcam. That’s why I made tentative plans with explore.org, who hosts and funds Katmai’s webcams, to live stream the presentation. The session begins at 10:45 a.m. PT on November 16.

In the age of internet and social media, traditional interpretive programs catering solely to on-site visitors (through guided walks, ranger-led talks, slide shows, etc.) are no longer adequate to build and maintain widespread stewardship for parks and other conservation areas. When I worked at Katmai National Park, I was amazed, awestruck really, at the reach and effectiveness of the bearcams. Nearly everyday, I could find evidence of people connecting in meaningful ways with Katmai’s wildlife. Katmai is better protected today than it was even ten years ago due to the awareness and understanding its webcams have brought to people around the world.

The bearcams annually reach tens of millions of people worldwide. With effective interpretation, webcams consistently and positively engage viewers, increase public awareness and stewardship of wildlife, expand messaging to pre and post on-site visitors, and extend interpretive messages to audiences worldwide. Existing technology now provides conservation organizations with the ability to reach people all over the world, not just those who are fortunate enough to visit. We need more webcams and more rangers on them. This is how parks take their message to the world.

Update (Nov. 17, 2017): A replay of my presentation is now online.

Download the slide presentation in PowerPoint (199 MB) or Keynote (127 MB).

*Sharp, Ryan, J. Skibins, and J. Sharp. Online and onsite brown bear viewing: Influence on visitors’ support for conservation-based management at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Unpublished Report to Katmai National Park and Preserve. Kansas State University. Jan. 23, 2017.

16 thoughts on “Hey National Parks: You Need More Webcams

  1. The bear cams changed my life!

    For me, they’ve prompted a profound interest in bears, salmon, Katmai, Alaska, and our national parks — and they’ve inspired me to want to be a ranger someday!

    I totally agree that additional park cams would be a great idea — for all the reasons you mention, and more. And kudos to you, Ranger Mike, for this blog, the conference presentation, and (I hope) the live stream.

    Looking forward to it!


  2. Thanks so much for your post Mike. The Bear Cams are indeed an invaluable tool. They take Katmai out of the realm of a “Boutique National Park”, available to people with – as you say – the resources and physical mobility to visit and make it available to everyone.

    On the Bear Cams, I have met many people who will never visit due to both issues and they are some of the most intelligent and passionate people I have ever met. I have also met people who suffer from depression who find that the cams help greatly with their depression. This past year has been very difficult for me for a number of reasons and being able to watch the cams has brought me solace.

    I am very excited about your presentation and look forward to watching it on Explore.org. I am hoping that you will address possible difficulties as well as benefits and NP response to them. For example, Bear Cam viewers were very concerned – rightfully so – about the potential impact proposed bridge construction might have on the bears and vociferously voiced their opinion on the matter. That must have been a novel situation for the incoming Katmai NP superintendent. What effect might that have on the feelings of park staff about cams and how can that be turned into a positive situation?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello Mike, thank you for this article. I am one of those who will never have the opportunity to visit Katmai NPS or any of the other great national parks in America. But you’re right, the opportunity to learn so much about the bears of Brooks River, also about everything else in Katmai and at Brooks has led me to be more interested in the protection of the animals and the environment in my home area and to stand up for it. Apart from the opportunity for the parks to present themselves to many, many people this is in my opinion a not to be underestimated effect of the webcams. I believe never before has it been more important than in these times to sensitize people for the protection of nature, animals and the environment. I am looking forward to your presentation and I hope Explore.org will stream it live at the bearcams. Again: Thank you for pointing out how it could be.. how i should be. It would be great to have more webcams in other national parks to learn more.
    Best wishes from germany

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is fantastic, Mike! I’m so grateful to you, Ranger Roy, Explore.org, and anyone else involved in bringing the bearcams to us. How wonderful it would be to have many more cams in our national parks with more rangers to help us understand why these places are so important. I’ve learned so much about amazing brown bears and I’ve gained a profound appreciation for national parks rangers and the work they (you) do to protect our beautiful, essential lands and the wildlife within them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We are honored to have your advocacy and validation. I only watch the Katmai bearcams, but they’ve been a profound experience on so many levels. Looking forward (understatement) to seeing your presentation at the conference!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Mike,
    This is very exciting. I have been involved intermittently in the effort to export numerous forms of interpretive subject matter, including curriculum-based environmental education, live streaming video, and traditional interpretive programs from Yellowstone National Park. I am a big fan of Tom Cawley (AKA “Web Cam Tom”), who installed the Old Faithful webcam back in the late 1990s, and later, the Mammoth webcams, Mt. Washburn webcams, and the live streaming cam at Old Faithful. Tom had a vision for an evolved webcam presence in national parks that would include live interpretive programs streamed via video, interactive interpretive programming, and packaged educational programs. For the most part, the explore.org partnership with the NPS has accomplished this at Katmai, and I view Katmai as the de facto leader in exploiting the capabilities inherent in webcam technology.

    Tom Cawley ran an idea by Ellen Petrick, who was the supervisor of the Environmental Education office in the Division of Interpretation in Yellowstone, in 2000 and 2001. They wrote a grant proposal that resulted in funding for an “electronic field trip” to be developed and broadcast from Yellowstone, aimed primarily at middle school students. Since I had spent the summer and fall of 2000 as a seasonal interp ranger at Mammoth, knew both Ellen and Tom, and had a significant background in network technology, I was recruited to be the initial project manager for the program that came to be named “Windows Into Wonderland”. Tom’s dream was never totally realized due to a lack of available bandwidth into Yellowstone, as well as prohibitive costs associated with video streaming licensure back in those days. My resume in network technology is long and varied, including traditional voice and data, fiber-based services, mainframe computer connectivity at channel speeds, public safety communications systems (including microwave, UHF and VHF radio, and digital trunked systems), and satellite systems. It spans decades. There is one communications system on the near horizon that I am watching like a hawk, because it has broad promise for explore.org and the NPS to provide live streaming content, live action, interactive video, and pre-packaged from virtually anywhere that you can provide a small video uplink/downlink device, and power it. For Yellowstone, I envision the potential of having several video-equpped vans, essentially production studios on wheels, that could roam the road system, exporting live video of significant events. That capability is only limited by one’s imagination, and any legal/ethical issues that might arise from certain subject matter. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that live broadcasts of visitor injury accidents or criminal arrests, where the faces of individuals taken into custody are readily recognizable, would be off limits.) Other vans could focus on more traditional interpretive fare, like presentations, walks and talks, etc. There are obvious potential issues surrounding the possibility of masses of park visitors seeing a streaming video of a bear or wolf kill resulting in a stream of traffic converging on a specific location. Of course, with Facebook, Instagram, and a few other applications, we are already in a position where that problem can arise. It will have to be dealt with creatively.

    Here are two links to what I believe is a very significant Low Earth Orbiting Satellite (LEOS) service that will be launching soon. OneWeb is building very low cost satellites as I type this comment. Their first launch is scheduled for March, 2018. Eventually, they plan to have somewhere in the neighborhood of between 700 and 900 satellites orbiting the Earth. The goal is to provide broadband internet access to every corner of the globe. Some of the heavy hitters involved in One Web are Dr. Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, and Thomas Enders, CEO of Airbus Group. SpaceX is supposed to be competing in this niche, but I have not had time to explore what they are planning. I get the impression that OneWeb is out in front, in terms of getting a viable footprint established in the near term. This summer, I spent time at pullouts in Yellowstone, where visitors were observing bears, wolves, and other charismatic megafauna, and socialized some of what I am envisioning. Most people are very excited about the promise in the technology, but when we got around to discussing whether we thought that exciting new streaming video capabilities throughout the national parks would serve to decrease park visitation by providing a “virtual visit”, or actually spur more visitation through advertising the parks, there was a lot of concern. As you know, many national parks have been setting attendance records in recent years, and many facilities are taxed beyond their limit. As a nation, we are going to have to address this surge in popularity, and how we mitigate the negative impacts.

    Here are the links I am recommending, regarding OneWeb:


    I have walked in multiple worlds over time, corporate America, the National Park Service, and non-profits. One of my concerns is that if the National Park Service does not get out ahead on exploiting the incredible potential in this emerging new technological capability, there is risk that commercial interests may “homestead” some of our national parks.

    I will make every effort to watch your session at the 2017 National Association of Interpretation Conference.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I think your presentation to provide more cameras, etc. to national parks is a wonderful one. Watching the bears enriched my life. When i first started watching the bears I was going through chemotherapy. It was great because I kept it on all the time and if I slept now and again it was no big deal. With Tv you would miss the whole story. The Bears took me out of my misery and made a huge improvement in my life. I would like to see Chemotherapy wards have access to the cams. Most patients have to sit for a couple of hours and it would be a wonderful way to take their mind of what they are going through. Kudos to you for your hard work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Amen!

    Like Martina above, I’m unlikely to ever have the privilege of seeing Katmai or the majority of National Parks, in the US or overseas. The past two summers watching the bears at Brooks Falls and beyond have been a complete joy. From knowing less than nothing, to losing days with the webcams, fascinated by these wonderful animals as groups and individuals. That I’ve learned so much is my blessing, but to have been able to share that with young nieces and nephews, starting conversations about how they might help to protect the environment and all animals in turn, is just wonderful.

    Once again, thank you, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Ranger Mike, I first watched the bear cams from 5,000 miles Charlotte, NC in the fall of 2013. I had been to Alaska (Denali, Seward, Anchorage) a month earlier and knew I wanted to explore more areas in this beautiful state. After watching the bear cams and following the lives of Otis, Holly, Beadnose, Grazer, Lurch, 856, 402, Chunk, Backpack and more, I planned a visit to Katmai. It took me a couple of years to get to go (had to save up money because it is expensive), but in September, 2016, I went to Katmai National Park for five days and stayed at Brooks Lodge. It was an amazing experience to see the bears in person.

    What you, Ranger Roy, Ranger Dave, Ranger Leslie, and all of the other Rangers instilled me through the live chats and web posts on the bear cams is the need to protect these animals and to protect public lands for future generations. I can’t imagine that the bears that we have come to know could be hunted in their dens as they sleep through the winter.

    I also have learned about the need to preserve the natural process. Nature is not always pretty, in fact, it can be cruel sometimes, but it would not necessarily be better with human interference.

    Thank you and Explore.org for bringing the brown bears, the polar bears, the elephants, the service dogs, the ospreys and more to millions of people around the world through the live web cams.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Agreed! The cams are not only a visual tool, but a learning tool too. They do bring awareness and knowledge to help protect our wildlife and wilderness. When one is not able to experience this in person they still get to experience it via the cams. People acknowledge what they can see and the cams reach millions of people everyday, and with this audience positive changes are possible. Thanks for all you do! See you at the presentation 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree 100% that we definitely need more web cams – perhaps we can put a bee in Explore’s ear. I have been to Alaska many times and fell in love with the state on our first visit. I would love to go to BF and see the bears up close and personal but age and knee surgeries prevent any hiking or walks at length. I envy you, Mike, so you young fella explore and enjoy what life has to offer you. Really wish you would come back to BF and be our Ranger again. Never to old learn and golly have you taught me so much about my beloved brown bears. There are so many places in this world that cams be such a benefit. Loved you chat the other day…… Thank you……

    Liked by 1 person

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