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Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Dinosaur National Monument, talks with a visitor Wednesday, April 11, 2012. Johnson has traveled to Jordan three times as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program that is helping the Middle Eastern country improve the way it protects and promotes sites of historical, cultural and natural importance.

JENSEN, Utah — The National Parks in Utah are famous for their magnificent redrock formations.

Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and even Dinosaur National Monument draw millions of visitors from around the world each year for experiences that can't be found anywhere else. 

The tiny country of Jordan also has its share of scenic sandstone sites. And now, Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Dinosaur National Monument, is part of a U.S. government program that is trying to help that Middle Eastern nation improve the way it manages and promotes those sites.

In January, Johnson made his third trip to Jordan, trading the hills of eastern Utah and western Colorado for the ancient Jordanian city of Petra and other sites in Aqaba, Wadi Dana and Ajloun.

"You could almost feel like you were transported back in time," he said Wednesday, noting that after more than 3,000 years of exploitation by humans, "it's amazing there are still natural places (in Jordan) that are untouched."

Johnson first visited Jordan in 2008, when he worked in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The visits are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and take place under the guidance of the Interior Department's International Technical Assistance Program.

Johnson's role was to look at ways to provide visitors to Jordan's protected sites with more interpretive information.

"When people understand kind of what they're seeing around them — whether it's the geology, the history, the nature, the plant and animal life — a lot of times they can develop a better appreciation for those things," he said.

"That's really the goal of what we try to do here and what many other countries are trying to do," Johnson added, "so that if people appreciate these sites, they'll want to take care of them and protect them for the future."

There are few "national parks," as most Americans would recognize them, in Jordan. Many of the protected sites are privately managed reserves. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature manages many of the larger sites like the Azraq Wetland Reserve, the Aljoun Forest Reserve and the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex.

Many of these attractions cater to eco-tourists, Johnson said, and the guest houses or lodges are built to complement the surrounding terrain.

"It's called 'park-itecture,'" he said. "The structures look like they fit" into their environment.

Although he was sent to Jordan to teach park managers there how to improve their sites, Johnson said he's also learned a valuable lesson.

"We come from a lot of different cultures, different beliefs and different things, but there are a lot of universals," he said. "People, you know, develop connections to the land over time. 

"It's a powerful thing," Johnson said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik