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Q & A with Conor Knighton

Emily Allen

Conor Knighton, a CBS correspondent, has set out on a mission to tour America's state parks from coast to coast. We caught up with him and asked him about his experience. 

How much time do you typically spend in each national park getting to know the landscape, those who are local to the area, and the history of the park?

I could spend a month at each one of these. Unfortunately, my schedule allows only two, three, four days at the most. Some of the smaller parks, like Dry Tortugas, you can really see in four hours-- I mean it’s an island. But a larger park, like Big Bend in Texas, even four days is still a disservice. At a lot of these parks, I’m making a mental list of places I’d like to go back to at some point. I’m experiencing them through the lens of a television producer-- I’m trying to tell interesting stories of these places. Sometimes I’ve had a really interesting experience, but it wouldn’t be your overall quintessential park experience; I’ll focus on a certain aspect of a park to tell a specific story, but not the entire story of the park.

I notice that the history of each park plays a significant role in your segments. As a viewer, I found this to be both interesting, and quite helpful, as it allowed me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of each park. Was it a conscious decision on your part to feature history so frequently in your segments, or did you find that it naturally fit into the way that you were telling each of their stories?

It’s a little bit of both. It was a choice to look at the history because with these parks, they’re all beautiful, so that’s not even a story. For the parks, I need to focus on not just that they are beautiful, but also that they are interesting, and a lot of the most interesting stories are historical stories. Part of the reason why we’re doing this series this year is that it’s the 100th anniversary of of the park service, and so we started off on a historical note. When I’m looking for interesting stories, that is one of the first places I look-- you know, what happened in this region to make it a park. In Hot Springs Arkansas, people used to think that the waters had these magical healing properties, and that’s how we protected that place-- it was beautiful, but it was medicinal. I’d never heard that story before, and so if it peaks my interest my hope is that it’s interesting to the audience as well.

In addition to the history of each park, you also include content that draws upon biology, art and design, and human experiences connected with each park. Is there one specific topic that you particularly enjoy exploring or including in your videos? 

I’ve had a blast at all of these places. I mean, at Biscayne National Park in Florida, I got scuba certified; I had never done that before, and now it’s part of my job. I also think that that was an interesting story, but it was also just a really fun experience for me personally. Meeting these people, both people who work in the park and the people who visit the parks, I mean it has been those human stories that have been really interesting for me. That’s not something you always get to do as a visitor. The hiking trails are easy for everyone to access, but the privilege I have is that I get to spend more time with people and really dive in deep on their stories, or stories in and around the park.

Upon watching your segments, it seems that even the smaller parks are rich in culture and play significant roles in the economies and histories of their respective surrounding towns or cities. Did you find this to be the case when you were visiting?

Absolutely. Bar Harbor, Maine, I think is a really good example of that. Bar Harbor is the closest town to Acadia National Park-- that’s a park where 75% of the visitors come during four months of the year, and so Bar Harbor is a really seasonal town. I had never seen a place shut down like that before. I was there on January 1st, as I came to hike Cadillac Mountain on the first day of the year to experience the first sunrise in the United States. But good luck finding a place to eat or sleep during those winter months because the park creates a lot of the commerce there. A lot of these small towns around parks do benefit quite a bit from the park being there.

I know that you’re currently still on the road, exploring different national parks. Is there one location that you feel that you’ve particularly connected with so far?

This is a tough question. I haven’t had a bad time at any of them-- they’ve all been super interesting, and they’re all very different from each other. I don’t know if there is one in particular that feels like it has spoken to me more than others. There are ones that I’m very excited to visit that I haven’t been to yet. The parks in Alaska I’m very excited to see. By the end of the year, I’ll have gone to American Samoa, which is a place I don’t think many Americans know exist. In terms of where I have been, I look at them as more of a total experience versus an individual one that was really special to me.

In your segment, the rangers and other people who work in and for the parks are featured quite frequently, and seem share a passion for their occupation. Can you tell me a little more about your experience working with them?

I have yet to meet a boring ranger. Park ranger is not a job that anyone does for the money, so people are there because they want to be there, because they feel a connection to that place. I found that a lot of them move from place to place. It’s almost like being in the park army, where you’ll do a tour of duty for two years up at Denali in Alaska, and then you’ll go to Joshua Tree, and then you’ll head out to Glacier in Montana. Many of them tend to move from place to place, and because of that a lot of them tend know each other. It’s a smaller world than you would guess. There’s also a wide range of park jobs. So yes, there’s the ranger, but there are also law enforcement officers, there’s a park service planning division in Denver, where they do social finances trying to manage and track park visitation. There’s custodial, there’s woodshop, there’s human resources-- ultimately it’s a giant company. I guess the goal of the park service is that you’re not necessarily thinking about how much work goes into maintaining and operating these parks, the goal is for you to have this experience in the wilderness. But to make that happen, there’s a lot of people behind the scenes. 

I know you’ve traveled and produced pieces in many different countries. Has your production of “On the Trail” changed your perspective of America, and if so, how? 

It absolutely has. As I’ve been traveling from park to park, I’ve been surprised by how many international visitors I’ve seen at these places. It’s really something unique and special that America did and continues to do to protect these places. That’s not something that’s true in a lot of the rest of the world. When America protected places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, they could have just as easily been commercialized. The fact that we didn’t do that is pretty uniquely American. That has given me a sense of pride that I wasn’t necessarily expecting as I’ve been going from place to place. These places belong to all of us, and that’s pretty cool.

By Sydney Hartzell

Photos courtesy of Efrain Robles