Unigrids: Mapping and the National Park Service

Melanie Armstrong

When people enter a national park, they are typically greeted by a smiling park ranger and handed a map. These black-bannered “unigrids” or “glossies,” to use the lingo of the agency, have becomes deeply associated with these public spaces, and visitors who travel to parks will go to great lengths to seek out “one of those shiny maps they give out at the gate.” The National Park Service has created its brand through this mapping system, though the brand has evolved with the agency and within a changing cultural context. In this session, we will explore the meanings behind NPS maps, considering how these maps present public spaces as unique places as well as part of a larger cultural identity.

The theoretical foundation for this session comes from the fields of history and geography. After a lively discussion of maps as fluid documents, participants will analyze the Capitol Reef unigrid. In particular, we will consider how the landscape and stories experienced by participants in the conference are represented (or not) in the cartography, images and information on the park map. How is nature represented by this document? What stories are missing? What work does this map do in shaping human interactions with the landscape?

Next, we turn to an archive of park maps from the last thirty years. In this analysis, we will consider changing ideas and values as they are recorded in these primary sources. How do cultural representations of the past startle modern audiences? What do the changing representations of public space reveal about changing value systems? The opportunity to thumb through historic documents, chuckle at peculiarities of the past, while appreciating the artwork and craftsmanship of several generations of mapmakers should provide lively and stimulating conversation about the value of national parks, public lands, and wild places in people’s lives.

Finally, participants will be challenged to creatively represent on their own unigrids the meanings they create in the landscape. How is a map an ecotone where lived experience tugs against the representations of the landscape? To explore the work, which goes into representations of nature in a two-dimensional technology, participants will be challenged to create a document, which is meaningful to them, and then express that meaning to others.