SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Jimi Hightower Considers the Value of Parks at the Brink of a Shutdown
I had an unconventional childhood. After my dad took a job that kept him on the road for months at a time, my parents decided we should join him so we could all be together. We bought a motorhome, began to homeschool, and hit the road – stopping at national parks along the way. We saw ancient forests, historic buildings, fascinating museums, national monuments, and dramatic landforms – all national parks. While I didn’t have much space of my own, traveling to these magical places allowed me to explore my greater backyard and make it my own. I learned that national parks belong to us all and their purpose is to conserve OUR history, OUR culture, and OUR landscapes.
In 2013, I experienced my first government shutdown. My cousin came to visit soon after I moved to Seattle and we had grand plans of exploring Mount Rainier National Park only to be incredibly let down by its closure. Being denied access to MY national park made me realize how much I treasure the cultural and natural resources parks offer. As citizens, we are stewards of these special places, but when visitors are turned away and employees are furloughed, we are neglecting these places we’ve sworn to protect.
I discovered that I have a passion for inspiring and educating others about the importance of preserving our natural, cultural, and historic landscapes. I pursued degrees in history and museology, and began volunteering at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park as a mentor for In My Backyard, a conservation leadership development and youth outreach program. Now that I have become a Student Conservation Association (SCA) Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, my job is to help expand the volunteer force of the National Park Service. Like my parents before me, I am introducing a younger generation to national parks – to landscapes, culture and, ultimately, ideas they have never experienced before. Many of the centennial initiatives revolve around diversifying the Park Service and making it relevant to ALL people, because our country is experiencing a demographic shift that is not currently represented in the NPS workforce.
My positive experiences with national parks have heavily influenced me, and as the possibility of another shutdown looms, I’ve found myself thinking more about what the closure of these dear places would entail. Four hundred and nine sites would close, including national parks, monuments, historical sites, and recreation areas. Researchers would be unable to access collections, field trips would be cancelled, and the public would be left wanting. Shutdowns are often perceived as a symbol of government dysfunction, but it also throws another idea into sharp relief: the National Parks are OURS, and denying us access to special places we hold dear is denying us a part of our culture and a part of ourselves. If we fail to make national parks relevant and accessible to future generations, the national parks will no longer be America’s best idea.