We have always used the face up park cards as an opportunity to explore the map together (we usually play this game as a family). As a result we are all much better at knowing where the parks are when they're mentioned in the news, etc.
For example, explore.org's bear cam is now up and running in Katami National Park (which is awesome to watch bears fishing for salmon, but I digress). My 5-year-old daughter immediately knew that Katami was in Alaska, because of us playing this game.
I personally don't see an issue with the meeples, but learning where the parks are can also be a fun thing.
Agreed, this is a very educational game but the meeples are really for effientcy rather than a crutch (too lazy to learn).
Thanks for the bear cam info, I'm going take a look, that's really cool!