Our National Parks Showcase the History of the Earth

by Audrey Peterman


Happy start to the Holiday Season! I’m feeling particularly blessed this year just to be alive when so many others have succumbed. As I have time for reflection I was looking at the picture and comments in my high school yearbook from 1970, and noticed that my classmates in Jamaica wrote:

“Her only claim to fame is her mellifluous voice which makes even the rubbish she spouts sound like sense! Beware!”

There was no ill will behind it and I was the Editor, so it gave me a good laugh. My classmate on whose property we currently reside often says, “You are what you were,” which she credits to her Mom who was a renowned educator. It confirms what my own Mom said, that I "came into the world fast as if I was on a mission, lacking only my pocketbook and high heels." This season I hope we can all look back and see the mission we've been on, and how we've striven to fulfill it.

Our national parks and all the lands lands placed into our natural treasury over the past 157 years, (beginning with President Abraham Lincoln putting away the first piece in Yosemite in 1864 even though he was in the middle of the Civil War) are the most authentic example of "being what they were." They contain elements from the beginning of time, evolving up to today. They give us the opportunity to look backward and forward. One of the greatest things about going back to national parks and protected lands that we first visited 25 years ago is that few changes are visible. There aren't many other places of which that can be said.

Today for the first time, the top managers of our protected lands are indigenous people, descended from the original land managers before the coming of Europeans and the founding of America. 500 million acres managed by the Department of Interior is under the leadership of Deb Haaland, who traces her ancestry in the Laguna Pueblo People back 35 generations. The National Park Service which manages 84 million acres of the most highly prized lands including our “Crown Jewels” is under the leadership of Charles Sams III who identifies as “Cayuse and Walla Walla, with blood ties to the Yankton Sioux and Cocopah Peoples.

The USDA Forest service which includes 145.2 million acres is led by Chief Randy Moore and the remaining 55.1 million acres of the total is managed by the Department of Defense under Lloyd J. Austin III. Both are Black Americans.

It is impossible to overlook the significance of this moment, and it energizes me to recognize it as an inflection point - a turning point as defined by Merriam Webster. Literally, the four top managers of the 784.3 million acres of America’s treasured public lands, the bedrock of our future, are Americans of color.

I interpret this development as a sign that our country is indeed moving forward to realize it’s creed of “One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All.” Particularly at this time when the idea is being pushed that democracy doesn’t work and that the American experiment is a failure, it offers conclusive proof that we continue to move forward despite the efforts of some to retard pogress.

Finally now, the latent wisdom and knowledge of the original inhabitants and those who were critical to the development of America’s agricultural backbone will be integrated into the mix. I wish the scientist George Washington Carver, born into enslavement and yet a Renaissance man who revolutionized agriculture and was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, London from 1916, could see his country now.

Of course no one goes to the national parks to make a political statement, and I cannot overstate the magic and joy of the experiences that my husband Frank and I have had within them. Among my favorite memories:


- The night of our third anniversary, September 23, 1995, when I watched Frank creep stealthily to the back of our truck parked on the side of the road in Yosemite National Park. He was bent on retrieving his trusty machete in case a bear decided to pay us a visit in the middle of the night, since we’d just discovered there was no room at the lodge and after a full day’s driving we were disinclined to make camp.

- The night I spent 3000 feet deep in Grand Canyon National Park South Rim at Indian Gardens with members of my favorite advocacy organization, marveling at the sight of the moon jumping suddenly over the canyon walls after the sun undressed them for the night.

- The morning my friend Kim Anaston and I raced alongside dolphins frolicking in the waters of Florida Bay in Everglades National Park, screaming for joy like little children.

- The night we visited the Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and watched the males and females “turn on their heart lights,” flashing each other rhythmically in an age-old ritual.

- The nights we spent in Zion National Park with five of our grandchildren watching their delight as they “helped” their Grandpa cook at the campfire, laughing as he took sips of Courvoisier from his flask which he told them was “good for the phlegm.” Fifteen years later they still talk about that.

I could list innumerable other adventures in the parks and public lands shared with family and friends, making memories that last a lifetime. I’m just so grateful that they remain supporting us, concentrating the elements of fire, air, water and earth into life sustaining resources for us and future generations. They "are what they were" in ways that nothing man-made can be. If you don't have a relationship with them yet, I suggest you hasten to rectify that!

Tune in tonight to our friend Marine veteran Chad Brown who has been leading other wounded warriors into the wilderness with his dog Axe for healing ion National Geographic's new reality show, Called into the Wild.




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