What makes Texas (and America) great

For ten years I have served the Big Bend Conservancy in support of Big Bend National Park, a United States national park located in Western Texas (ordering Mexico). 

During this time, I have had the immense privilege of experiencing the best parts of America: its public lands. By working with partners and colleagues nationwide, I have experienced many parts of our big, beautiful country. I truly believe that one can only understand the width and breadth of the American experience if one takes the time to explore as much of its geography as possible.

Visiting a place isn't simply all there is to it. What can make the experience so memorable are the people who band together to help provide it. From park rangers to superintendents to volunteers, our public lands attract as their custodians some of the finest individuals imaginable, those who share the common goal of providing the public with the best experience possible. These dedicated persons go out of their way to ensure your safety, answer all your questions, make your kids laugh, and do what they can so that you will have an extraordinary visit.

I’ve cruised down the Air Force One tarmac at Lyndon B. Johnson Historic Site in a historic Lincoln Continental convertible with the top down with the park superintendent. My daughter and I watched Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell officially make Waco Mammoth a National Monument, a moment many of my colleagues fought hard for over a twenty years period. I also saw Sec. Jewell welcome UNESCO to San Antonio to celebrate the San Antonio Missions World Heritage designation.

My own amazing experiences on public lands are almost too numerous to count.

One morning, I rode to the top of the St. Louis Arch with my family, then spent more than an hour with an National Park ranger at the Old Courthouse building getting a blow-by-blow recounting of the Dredd Scott decision and what it meant, while the ranger walked my children through the actual courtroom where the decision was made, and showed them the building’s unique sound structure. 

I’ve sat in a bear jam in my car in Yellowstone with my family and watched a mama grizzly bear dash across the road with her baby in tow to get to a lake. I’ve taken a paddle wheeler to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.

On a crisp fall day, I canoed the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area from Minneapolis to St. Paul with my colleagues, while learning about the kids’ programs they provide on the river.

In a span of four days, my board toured Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile National Historic Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park—all with the park superintendents who took time out of their full schedules to greet my board and thank them for their support of public lands. 

We’ve walked our dog at Lincoln National Historic site on a beautiful fall day in Springfield, Illinois. I’ve watched climbers on the Grand Teton through the telescope at the superintendent’s office at Grand Teton National Park. I’ve watched the sun rise on both coasts—from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park to the National Park Service ferry crossing to Alcatraz Island. 

I’ve also taken my children to watch the sunrise at Padre Island National Seashore, while a horde of staff and volunteers released baby sea turtles, ensuring they oriented themselves to the rising sun to properly set their internal compass so that, one day, they would be able to return to that same beach to lay their eggs. 

In “my” park, Big Bend National Park, I’ve stood in the Chisos Basin campground in the pouring rain with my membership coordinator Arlene and watched the mountains pour out instant waterfalls of silver, plunging downward in glistening torrents.

I’ve seen the sky turn red from the sunset reflecting off Casa Grande. I watched children climb over the park’s first interactive play elements—a gift to the park from my organization as part of the Fossil Discovery Exhibit—and delighted in their giggles and excited chatter. Every time I visit Big Bend, I meet a birder who is posting their count for Audubon. 

It’s not just the national parks that have made my journey so incredible. Public lands everywhere provide fantastic experiences to all visitors. My family drove down a scenic byway in Nebraska and spent a lovely picnic lunch learning about the prairie from a volunteer at the roadside welcome center.

I’ve experienced the thrall of a rain shower rolling across the Garden of the Gods, and have passed countless baby buffalo standing close to their mothers in Custer State Park. Earlier this summer, I stood with my children atop the Canyon Lake Dam (an Army Corps of Engineers site), and as we watched the sun shine on the sparkling water, we delighted at the jet skiers bouncing across the wake. A family friend who works long hours as a police officer spends his weekends volunteering with Texas Parks and Wildlife demonstrating campfire cooking.

There is a wealth of experience just waiting to be discovered on our nation’s public lands. Countless people across the country rally for their public lands every day. 

From the funds raised to buy Antelope Flats at Grand Teton National Park, to the community of support that made Waco Mammoth National Park happen, to the volunteers who drove the renovation of Crissy Field to the Fossil Discovery Exhibit at Big Bend National Park, our public lands enjoy the enduring love and support of the American people. 

Even people of limited economic means give away a significant amount of money to their lands. When there is a problem, volunteers drop everything to pitch in and help. The support one sees every day for the lands we all share brings out the best of America and Americans. 

It's important to value them, keep them, and care for them. In addition to the beauty and the richness of experience they provide for us, these lands also provide American jobs, contracts for local family businesses, and tax dollars in both rural and urban communities. If we protect our public lands, we protect American jobs and businesses too.

Public lands play a large part of the uniquely American experience—and it's an extraordinary one.

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Courtney Lyons-Garcia is the executive director of the Big Bend Conservancy. Her career includes positions at National Geographic Traveler, the National Parks Conservation Association, the San Antonio Botanical Society, and the Mid-Texas Symphony. She received master’s degrees in both media/public affairs and sustainable tourism from The George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Texas A&M University.

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Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.

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