...and we interviewed the Park Ranger who created them
When Gavin Gardner submitted a set of three national park vignettes to the LEGO Ideas website last spring, he was hardly prepared for the huge and overwhelmingly positive response he got.
Now Gardner’s idea for a set of LEGOs that celebrates America’s national parks has gotten the 10,000 votes it needed to be placed under oﬃcial consideration by the Danish toy company. If all goes well, LEGO national parks could soon be a reality, and maybe even in time for the National Park Service Centennial this August.
Meanwhile, Gardner’s already come up with ideas for 17 more of his favorite parks. We caught up with him at Springfield Armory National Historic Site, where he’s currently a Ranger, to ask about his inspiration for bringing parks and LEGOs together.
What originally drove you to create a trio of national park LEGO sets?
It was Christmas 2014 when my kids were finally old enough for LEGO sets. More specifically, my son was finally old enough to quit putting everything in his mouth. So we got my daughter the awesome Research Institute set featuring women scientists. It was a set that was part of the LEGO Ideas website. This got my wife and me thinking about possible ideas, and the National Park Service Centennial seemed like an amazing opportunity to feature small vignettes of different parks.
How did you settle on Katmai, Saguaro, and the Everglades?
Actually, my original submission included Katmai, Saguaro, and Gettysburg. It was rejected by LEGO for being against their rule of no “modern war memorials.” I didn’t argue that a monument built in 1891 to a war fought over 150 years ago might not be considered modern. So it goes. Katmai and Saguaro were obvious choices. They have an iconic aspect, giant bears and giant cactus, which can be captured at this small LEGO scale. The Everglades was another idea based on how it would look as a LEGO vignette, and offered the chance for a canoe and an alligator.
If you got to choose another trio of parks to build, what would they be and why?
Actually, I now have 20 vignettes of different parks for this proposal. I am only allowed to propose a single set, not a new series, as part of LEGO Ideas. I wanted to expand the range of parks featured in the original three, which were all significant natural resource parks. I also wanted to add some of the true NPS icons like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. That said, there are definitely parks I would like to build like Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, or Yosemite. These are all iconic parks that have given me design trouble in the past. They are all parks known for their enormous scenery, which is something diﬃcult to capture in a small LEGO vignette. I have smaller parks I would like to build as well, like John Day Fossil Beds, Klondike Gold Rush, or Dinosaur. Those are all parks that might work at the small scale.
If LEGO moves forward with your original three vignettes, is it possible that all 20 of your designs will eventually go into production?
Coming up with 20 different vignettes was partially a way to continue a long term social media campaign to get new supporters. 10,000 supporters is a lot of people! Each park has its own diehard fan base that could possibly have been the one to put the set over 10,000. It was also a way to illustrate the extent of the possibility of NPS sites made out of LEGO, without suggesting a new series, which is against the LEGO Ideas rules. My hope is that LEGO will review the original proposal and all of my updates, and come up with a final set that features four or five of the best vignettes. Past the single set proposal I will have no input in their future plans. That said, if LEGO does decide to feature a number of parks past the original set, as a fan of LEGO and the NPS I would buy every single one.
As these LEGO sets get closer and closer to becoming a reality, what kind of reaction are you hearing from NPS?
People have been so excited and supportive from the very beginning. The National Park Conservation Association was there in the beginning and got the support rolling in the first few days. In December, it was social media shares from the SCA, Eastern national, the National Park Foundation, and another share from the NPCA that sent the set over the required 10,000 supporters. It was amazing.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened as a result of the attention your NPS vignettes are getting?
It is ridiculous how much attention they are getting. I never imagined I would be called by Outside Magazine or the Sierra Club. I am also really excited that Eastern National likes the idea. Seeing this set in an NPS visitor center would be surreal!
What qualities would an SCA intern LEGO person possess?
I should work an SCA blue shirt into a future design. That would be the most identifiable feature.
If each of your sets could come with a message, what would you want it to be?
I would want people to know that the few featured vignettes are only a tease of what the NPS has to offer in the 409 National Park sites. From historic ships in San Francisco, the blow hole at Wupatki, the swamp at Congaree, Bristlecone Pines at Great Basin, Edison’s Laboratory, or the Hopewell Culture mounds, there are amazing places out there, with Park Rangers excited to introduce you to them. I would hope the message would be to get out there, see America, and dare I say, Find Your Park!
What do you hope kids get from playing with your sets, besides some creative, spacial-skills-building fun?
Let’s aim high and say I hope these vignettes, if they become a reality, are exciting enough that kids are inspired to visit the parks in person. Obviously a LEGO Saguaro cactus, or Brown Bear eating salmon, or an alligator, are neat, but seeing them in real life is amazing!
Your wife, we hear, is an SCA alumna. What role did your mutual love of parks and the great outdoors play in bringing you together?
Actually, we met in Death Valley of all places. She was working the winter season at Scotty’s Castle and I was an archeologist. So yes, the NPS had a serious role in bringing us together!
Post Script: We couldn’t resist the opportunity to catch up with as SCA alumna whose service led to a conservation career, so we asked Danielle Norris, Gavin’s wife, a few questions as well.
Where did you intern with SCA? What kind of work did you do? Did your SCA experience help land you the job where you ultimately met the LEGO-loving love of your life?
My two internships with SCA definitely led to me getting my first oﬃcial position with the Park Service! I had a blast, and the experience I gained definitely helped me get my foot in the door for an NPS career. It was actually my second paid gig at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley where I met Gavin. The sequence went like this:
1. 3-ish month SCA internship in the Interpretation division in Big Bend National Park from sometime in October-December 2004
2. 3-ish month SCA internship at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR in early 2005
3. Summer seasonal park ranger of interpretation position at Bandelier NM in 2005
4. Winter seasonal park guide position at Death Valley National Park starting in January of 2006 where I met Gavin
And then there were a couple of seasonal gigs between the two of us (Capitol Reef NP for me, Klondike Gold Rush for him), and then permanent positions for me (Point Reyes National Seashore) and then for Gavin (Tonto NM, Salinas Pueblo NM, and then now Springfield Armory NHS). Now I’m a professional wedding and portrait photographer, and my dream is to be the wedding photographer you call when you’re planning a destination wedding in a national park! So far, I’ve photographed a wedding in Zion National Park and will be photographing a wedding near Big Bend National Park this September.
Maybe someday I’ll work seasonally again in the NPS while still maintaining my photography business. We’ll see!