National Parks

A couple of springs ago, my family trekked down to spend a week in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. We hiked various trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and marveled at the crowds and at how many unique languages we heard spoken by fellow hikers and vista-viewers. I should have known better, but I didn’t believe my dad when he said the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited of the 61 National Parks. We looked it up (and Dad was right, of course). It wasn’t even close. The Smokies host nearly 11.5 million visitors a year. The next closest – with a mere 6.38 million visitors – is the Grand Canyon. 

The National Parks system began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 which was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It took another 44 years before all existing national parks and monuments were managed and regulated under one bureau, the Nature Parks Service. The stated purpose of the Parks Service was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today, over 85 million acres are protected by the National Parks system, including national monuments, landmarks, seashores, and other designations. The most recently added park, Indiana Dunes, was designated from a national lakeshore to a national park in February of this year.

The Parks Service website lists the following as its current roles in our society:

  • guardian of our diverse cultural and recreational resources
  • environmental advocate
  • partner in community revitalization
  • world leader in the parks and preservation community
  • pioneer in the drive to protect America’s open space.

I recently attended a UW Arboretum Winter Enrichment lecture where the speaker, Steven Davis, professor of political science at Edgewood College, touted the need for and benefits of public lands. He talked about how public lands protect the rights of all people to experience these natural and wonderful places. Public lands protect natural habitats and the species that live there, and, he added, they provide invaluable ecosystem services (more on that topic in a later post). He also made a strong economic and political case for keeping public lands in the hands of the public. You can learn more from his book, “In Defense of Public Lands.” He certainly had me convinced – and I would guess the 11 million+ visitors who come to the Great Smoky Mountains from across the globe each year would agree.

Did You Know:

The Federal Recreation Lands hosts a photo contest – the Share the Experience amateur photo contest – with a grand prize of $10,000. There are six categories to submit your photos under (including “Family, Friends & Fun”) and photos must be taken on the lands of participating Federal lands agencies, including National Parks. If your photo is selected, you not only win the cash prize, but your photo will be featured on the 2021 Federal Recreation Lands Pass.

Recreation.gov makes booking camps sites, obtaining permits, and finding the perfect tour a cinch. Search by map, type of experience, or dates and then get out there!

While there are many organizations like The Trust for Public Lands or Patagonia working to preserve and protect our public lands, I’m most inspired by these teens who stepped up to protect the Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Yay for youth voice!

Madison ranks in at #12 on the the Trust for Public Lands’ ParkScore! That means 94% of residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park. Check out your city or find out who has the #1 spot here.

To Do This Month:

  • The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a part of the Wisconsin National Parks. Start your hike on this trail at the Dane County junction and explore one of Wisconsin’s environmental landmarks.
  • Go on one of the many “Bird and Nature Outings” offered through different Nature Net sites and admire your local parks while doing so. Dates and times can be found on the Nature Net Calendar.
  • Grab some popcorn and watch the PBS documentary called The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
  • Check out the many environmental-based summer camps now open for registration at Upham Woods. Everyone can get involved, including campers, youth counselors, and adult volunteers.
  • Visit the Nature Net Calendar to find more fun and educational nature-related events to add to your plans for the summer!

Bird Finder Binoculars

National Parks Books

Dane County Parks

Upcoming Events

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For Educators:

Summer Learning 

The final bell has rung and the classrooms are silent – now’s the perfect time for you to be the student. There are great resources throughout the summer and across the state for professional development experiences – especially related to environmental education. Here’s a quick snap shot of some Nature Net favorites:

Indigenous Arts & Sciences Institute (Madison) – July 23-25 – Professional development to engage educators in ecological restoration and water stewardship rooted in Indigenous knowledge. Community members, college students, scientists, natural resource specialists, and K-16 teachers are welcome. ($135-$165)

National Children & Youth Garden Symposium (Madison) – July 10-13 – Providing the next generation with the knowledge and tools to create a sustainable environmental future and finding ways to maintain and grow the gardens and programs that nurture our youth is the focus of the 2019 National Children & Youth Garden Symposium. ($175-$425)

Green Schools Conference (Milwaukee) – August 1 – The conference is an opportunity to hear inspirational stories from eco-literate youth, connect with curricular and funding resources, and learn how schools in the Milwaukee-area are removing asphalt and enhancing their schoolyards with outdoor classrooms. ($50)

Nature Camp (West Bend) – August 9-10 – Reignite your internal flame. Open your heart and head to the wonders of nature. Discover the magic that inspires children to learn in nature. Create a plan for bringing the natural world to the children you serve. ($245)

There are plenty more opportunities listed on the Nature Net Calendar – just look for the green listings. Have fun being the student!

Also, the National Parks Service hosts a variety of resources for teachers, including a Teacher Ranger Program, materials for loan, and field experiences. And if you’re a 4th grade teachers, you can help get your students their free passes to the parks.

For Families:

Every Kid in a Park 

If you’re looking to go adventuring at National Parks this summer, you’ll be glad to know that the National Park Foundation has created a program to “get all 4th graders and their families to experience the places that are home to our country’s natural treasures, rich history, and vibrant culture.” To that end, the Parks Foundation is offering free passes for 4th graders and their families to use at all National lands.

Passes are valid from September 1st to August 31 of the year your child is in 4th grade. The pass works for your child and those in their vehicle, and allows entrance to Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites.

Getting your pass involves visiting everykidinapark.gov, completing an online nature journal activity, and downloading and printing your pass. The site also includes planning tips for adults, including quick links to online campsite booking and permits, suggested places to visit based on your objectives (do you want to see protected animals or visit the woods?), and easy packing lists.

You can also check out the US Forest Service’s suggested interactive activities. With a young person in my house who likes to play video games, I just might try Agents of Discovery, a mobile app that encourages finding geo-challenges in over 100 participating parks.


Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.