When we finally reached our campsite in Alaska Basin the sun had nearly dipped below the horizon, casting a blaze orange hue across the befittingly named Sunset Lake. As I sat on a rock outcropping overlooking the mirror-like water, I felt an intense flood of emotions- the bittersweet of a finished field season, the astonishment that I was backpacking the Teton Crest Trail as a farewell adventure, and a deep sense of belonging to the wilderness that surrounded me. Left to commune fully with nature in the breathtaking scenery of Grand Teton National Park, I realized that the most important thing my summer fellowship had taught me is that National Parks are not just important for keeping landscapes wild, but also for rewilding humanity.
“Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.” – E.B. White
We are nature
As a budding botanist and ecologist, I tend to spend a lot of time with my “head in the weeds” both figuratively and literally. My interests and training lead me to think often about what threatens plant biodiversity, a list that always includes a slew of human actions and activities. I must admit that my mind has come to associate human impacts on the land as overwhelmingly negative from an ecological standpoint. I, like early preservationists, once idealized this idea of an “untouched wilderness” where humans are excluded from the landscape. “Better off without us!” I might have said back then. But the reality is that we are nature and to build such a false wall between humanity and ecology is not only scientifically and culturally detrimental, but also a major impediment to the conservation movement.
Connection is the key to conservation
In the past, conservationists have worked to inspire change by communicating problems and losses to the public- hoping to push the panic button and watch a flood of help arrive. But modern research shows that people are much more likely to support conservation when there is a focus on solutions and when connections between humans and landscapes are fostered in healthy ways. After all, not all human impacts on nature are negative. It is important to recognize that indigenous peoples have long interacted with the landscape in formative and sustainable ways, finding a harmonic balance between subsistence and stewardship. Restoration projects like the one I worked on this summer in Grand Teton are further examples of how human hands can shape the land for the better and repair past damages. When I set my eyes upon the conservation horizon, I now see a future with a flipped script- where humans are inspired to feel responsibility for wild places rather than estrangement and guilt.
A dual-purpose mission
This summer, Grand Teton experienced a record year for visitation. Simultaneously, I embarked on a journey to communicate with visitors and the local community about sagebrush steppe biodiversity and restoration in the park. As I developed and shared community outreach programming, social media posts, and a Story Map with the hope of inspiring interest in stewardship of the steppe, I witnessed mixed responses- some of which were indifference or even opposition to its preservation. More than once, I felt deflated watching visitors trample thoughtlessly over fragile steppe wildflowers as they tried to get a better photo of the mountains. But the wise words of a colleague soon set me straight. “For some of our visitors, this is their first experience in a wild place, outside of the hustle and bustle of an urban center. They don’t always know how to connect or be land stewards but this is a place they can learn.” This comment struck a chord with me. After all, if one has not felt the stinging kiss of mountain air, or smelled the perfume of sagebrush after rain, or heard the haunting bugle of the elk, how can one feel compelled to protect and heal this land? Perhaps by encouraging humans to traverse wild places (responsibly) we are actually ensuring their preservation.
Soft rain falls upon the sagebrush steppe at the Taggart Lake trailhead. Because of camphor and other volatile oils, sagebrush is very aromatic and can leave a thick, spicy aroma in the air after rainfall. Multi-sensory experiences like this can be powerful for visitors and provide the opportunity to create a real connection with the landscape that can lead to a stewardship mindset. Video: Sienna Wessel
Our National Parks offer unique opportunities for humans from many walks of life to connect to wild places through recreational experiences, acting as “America’s greatest university without walls.” Established in 1916 by the Organic Act, the National Park Service was tasked with fulfilling a dual mission with two halves that are necessarily at odds: “to conserve park resources and to provide for their use and enjoyment in such a manner and by such means, as will leave them unimpaired for future generations.” Over the summer, by publicly sharing my own personal connections to the sagebrush steppe in Grand Teton, I was able to inspire thousands of people to think about biodiversity and to generate deep discussions about land stewardship in the park. It was there, in those moments, that I realized the potential role of National Parks and recreation in inspiring conservation action. As I set sail towards the horizon of what I hope will be a productive career in the conservation of plant biodiversity, I carry with me the understanding and appreciation of the dual mission and an optimistic perspective of human interactions with wild spaces. Thank you to Grand Teton National Park and the Scientists in Parks program for this lesson of a lifetime. You can continue to follow my journey to preserve plant diversity and to get others interested in “taking a walk on the plant side” by following me on Twitter @CuttingVegBotny, Insta @cutting_veg_botany, or TikTok @cuttingvegbotany.