Gustafson: One small oath for humanity | AspenTimes.com

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Gustafson: One small oath for humanity

With dirt-smudged grins on their faces and their little right hands raised, my then 4- and 6-year-olds took the junior ranger oath for the first time at Arches National Park in 2015. "As junior rangers …" the National Park Service ranger begins, "As junior rangers," they repeat.

"I promise to keep nature clean, as well as my room," they giggle and continue. "I will always protect Arches National Park, and all the rocks, and the plants, and the coyotes and the kangaroo rats, and their habitats," their smiles spread, "I will pick up litter, unless it's gross," more laughter, "I will keep learning new things and I will always make time for visiting national parks." They beam sheepishly as he congratulates them, "Yeah, nice job — high fives!"

We spent some of our downtime during their first national park visit completing the games, required activities and checklist in the booklets needed to pass the test and become a junior ranger. Around the campsite my kids began to expand their knowledge of the local geology, flora and fauna through fun activities, scavenger hunts and tasks. And they became so engaged during their exploration that they didn't stop to question how much learning was taking place.

My son's favorite task was to recover and turn in a piece of trash. His most memorable and often mused over moment from that trip was sending me on a precarious rock-hopping and belly-crawling rescue mission, in which I came face-to-whiskers with a kangaroo rat — all in an effort to retrieve an aluminum can from its seemingly unreachable resting place. Judging by the sell-by date, that vintage Squirt can had occupied that location since before my very first visit to that park long ago. As kids, our AES Outdoor Education programs emphasized the philosophy of "take only pictures, leave only footprints," and now as a parent, I do what I can to pass down similar notions of environmental stewardship.

Those experiences have encouraged both of my children to feel a similar sense of ownership, valuing our National Parks System and the environments they preserve in a way that no classroom experience could mimic.

That camping trip concluded at the visitor's center where they presented their completed activity booklets at the ranger station, took the oath and received their badges. And we have continued to visit many additional national parks, earning more badges over the past two years, and through each adventure I never once stopped to question if these places were worth preserving.

Despite feeling a little crowded at times, I treasure the concept of national parks — in fact, I value the community experience those parks help to create. In a sense they seem to pulse with globally unifying energy. Described by some as America's best idea, they are physical places where people from all over the world and different socioeconomic backgrounds can congregate in mutual awe over inspirational natural landscapes and well-preserved historic monuments.

Sure they can, at times, feel somewhat restrictive in access, particularly to those of us privileged enough to know about our radius of off-the-beaten-map "secret" campsites. And they sometimes come under scrutiny for the potential repercussions required to remain so accessible. Still, for the average tourist, our National Park System offers entrance to many wonders of the world that they may not have otherwise known to seek out. And for me they offer a cultural experience I feel we are sheltered from at times.

After many recent park visits I have become more and more aware of the incredibly diverse draw that the parks have for visitors from all around the world. They seem to have the power to break down differences as we hike along and camp side by side with people from all walks of life. And as a result we all seem to begin to recognize our similarities in these environments and we tend to even find common ground, literally, in our national parks.

Along with the oath of a junior ranger, the program also encourages the stewardship of our public lands, passing it from one generation to the next, allowing children to feel responsible for and a part of our National Parks System. And we intend to visit as many of the 29 sites currently under review by this administration as we can before it is too late. Included in some of our summer destination dreams, and also under review, are some remarkable places like Grand Staircase-Escalante, Giant Sequoia, Cascade-Siskiyou and the Sonoran Desert. I hope our time in these majestic locations will help to remind my children how unique and important these places are in preserving our environment and also in preserving what is left of our humanity.

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.