Jean Lafitte Park Keeps Us Connected

New Orleans Times-Picayune
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

by Lauralee Buchanan, SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador

When I led eco-tours in the Virgin Islands, I thought I’d found my dream job. I got to live in a paradise and share the wonders of nature. But the more I saw behind-the-scenes – the resource consumption, the excess waste, the hidden ecological toll – the more I realized that I was part of the problem, not the solution.
 
So I moved back to the United States, determined to find a green job in a big city, and now I’m a centennial volunteer ambassador with the Student Conservation Association at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, headquartered in the French Quarter. Jean Lafitte, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, is a microcosm of the National Park Service and its singular role in American society.
 
For example, the park’s 23,000-acre Barataria Preserve in Marrero features hiking and boardwalk trails through forests, bayous, swamps and marshlands. The preserve’s famous giant blue irises have just begun to bloom and while their overall numbers are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Katrina, these amazing flowers are unforgettable.
 
For history buffs, the Chalmette Battlefield is one of the most enduring symbols of the War of 1812. This is where Major General Andrew Jackson led a hastily-assembled force of militia, frontiersmen, former slaves, local Indians and even pirate Jean Lafitte to defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Next door is Chalmette National Cemetery, where throughout the month of March volunteers cleaned and documented many of the 14,000 veterans’ headstones that span a century and a half of conflict.
 
Among the sections at Jean Lafitte that I consider the most unique to Louisiana’s story are the three Acadiana sites: the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice and the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux. Both my parents were in the military and our family moved a lot, so I’m drawn by the area’s deep Cajun heritage and the story of how the Acadian people traveled so far to find refuge in South Louisiana.
 
The language, the food, the music here are all unique to Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta region. Generations have grown to identify with the gators and crawfish while others come to trace their family history, like the French Canadian couple I met recently who traveled from the original Acadia (now the maritime province of Nova Scotia) to learn more about their ancestors.
 
Of course, New Orleans is also home to Creole, German, Italian, Chinese, Filipino and other communities, and that’s why Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is such a binding force. It provides a connection that transcends space and time, one that is simultaneously distinctive and universal. The nodding heads and warm glances between visitors at Jean Lafitte’s six locations and the downtown center are testament to the cross-cultural ties one inherently feels here.
 
The 400-plus units of the National Park Service work in much the same way. They include monuments, seashores, parkways, recreation areas and, yes, historic parks. These inspirational assets, known as America’s Best Idea, have come to symbolize our nation and provide the common ground that bonds us as a people. Big-name parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Everglades are on everyone’s bucket list. But places like Jean Lafitte, as well as Valley Forge, Pa., Vicksburg, Miss., and Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home, also stir the soul because they tell the story of America — and each one of us is part of that incredible narrative.
 
I developed a passion for parks early on. As my family traveled, we often visited national parks. When I was five, we went to Glacier and I wanted to bring home a mountain goat. Today, as part of my community outreach, I meet with schoolchildren who never realized that there is a national park down the street from their house. I get to share in their excitement as I explain that this resource belongs to them. I recruit volunteers to help NewCity NOLA collect health and land data in neighborhoods still struggling post-Katrina, and follow our partners’ progress as the data are compiled and analyzed to ensure that resources are returned to those neighborhoods still in need.
 
Jean Lafitte is more than a national historic park. We’re a neighbor, a friend. We want to give back and move the community forward. We want people to know that this park is their park, and that as we protect America’s treasures, our focus is not only wilderness and wildlife. We’re also preserving our past because that will help chart our future.
 
I can’t think of a better objective as we approach the next 100 years of the National Park Service.
 
Lauralee Buchanan holds a degree in environmental studies from Florida State University and recently extended her Student Conservation Association centennial ambassador position at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park through June 2017.