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This story was first published in the winter 2013/2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

Former first lady brings attention to public lands

By Emily Stifler Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

Laura Bush and her friends were riding back from Fish Lake, just north of Yellowstone National Park, when the clouds unleashed.

“It rained for three hours, hard,” said Warren Johnson, Hells A-Roarin’ outfitter and their guide. “There was water roaring down the trail. The ground just couldn’t take any more water.”

After a mile they reached Knox Lake, where the outfitters rigged a tarp, tied up the horses, built a fire and fried a few fish they caught earlier that day.

It continued raining during the two-hour ride back to Jardine, Montana, and Johnson inquired if the women were all right, or if they were cold.

“This is fine,” they told him. “We know the country needs the rain.” It was July 2013, and the Emigrant Fire was burning 600 acres of public land just 20 miles away. Smoke had filled the air the previous few days.

“They just realized that was all part of the natural experience,” Johnson said.

Mrs. Bush with the Johnson family. PHOTO BY PEGGY WEISS

Mrs. Bush, whose husband George W. Bush served as president from 2001-2009, visited her first national park, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, as a Girl Scout. This past summer, she was in Yellowstone with four childhood friends from Midland, Texas. The group – which includes former National Park Foundation vice chair Regan Gamman – has spent a week hiking in a park every year since 2000.

A librarian and a teacher by training, Mrs. Bush is known for her work as first lady in early childhood education and women’s health. However, she has also used her stature to garner support for America’s national parks.

At the start of their trip, Bush and her friends held a private fundraiser for the Yellowstone Park Foundation at park Superintendent Dan Wenk’s house. At the reception, Bush recalled experiences hiking with these same women in Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park and Yosemite.

“We started [hiking together] years ago with the Colorado River trip through the Grand Canyon, and then hiking out the 10 miles,” she said. “For a few years we entered the concession lottery to hike from tended camp to tended camp in Yosemite, and we were never drawn. When George was elected, I called them and said, ‘Guess what, we’ve won the lottery.’”

The Yellowstone Park Foundation event raised $12,000, but more importantly said YPF President Karen Bates Kress, it raised awareness for the foundation’s work. The park’s official fundraising partner, the nonprofit works to fund projects and programs beyond the capacity of the National Park Service.

Public awareness is also important for the park itself.

“This is the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate zone of the world, a place that deserves all of our attention and our work to preserve it for the future,” Superintendent Wenk said at the reception.

When someone like Mrs. Bush visits, it gives the public “a greater understanding of the importance of national parks,” he later added. “She spends time hiking in the backcountry, exploring. That tells people there’s more to national parks than driving the roads and stopping at the pullouts.”

The former first lady has a track record with groups like YPF.

From 2004-2008, she was honorary chair of the National Park Foundation, which was created by Congress in 1967 to raise private funds and increase awareness of the parks. The organization in 2008 gave her its highest honor, the NPF Founders Award.

“Mrs. Bush was a champion of the national parks,” said NPF Communications Director Marjorie Taft Hall. “She continuously shared her passion and enthusiasm for the parks with many audiences, inspiring support, appreciation and lasting connection for these special places.”

An outspoken supporter of youth programs like Junior Rangers, which she says helps children become conservation stewards, Mrs. Bush continues to be a figurehead for these public spaces. At a 2011 fundraiser, she helped raise $65,000 for the Glacier Conservancy and the National Park Foundation, and in 2012, the Bushes donated more than $100,000 to the National Park Foundation.

Mrs. Bush speaking at a fundraiser for the Glacier Park Conservancy. PHOTO COURTESY GPC

Private philanthropy is vital for parks, NPF’s Taft Hall said.

Currently, NPF is helping fund one of the nation’s newest national parks, the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the crash site of one of the airplanes hijacked on September 11, 2001. For Mrs. Bush, this spot is close to her heart– Flight 93 was likely headed for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, had passengers not intervened. She visited Shanksville days after the crash and has returned every year since.

Supporting the parks – both natural and historical – is a national value, Wenk says.

“It’s not easy anymore to create national parks. It wasn’t easy in 1872 [with Yellowstone], but the fact that we did it is an incredible statement of what we value as a country. Mrs. Bush continues that in her own way.”

First ladies for parks

For Lady Bird Johnson (pictured at right), a childhood exploring cypress bayous near Karnack, Texas, began a life devoted to preserving nature.

During her husband’s presidency from 1963-1969, Mrs. Johnson advanced concern for the environment to the national stage, her advocacy helping set the tone for the administration’s addition of 3.6 million acres to the National Park System, plus passage of the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

With friend Laurence S. Rockefeller, Mrs. Johnson helped prompt Congress to charter the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service’s charitable partner.

Current first lady Michelle Obama (pictured at left with Mrs. Bush in the White House) started the ‘Let’s Move Outside Junior Ranger’ program, a nationwide campaign encouraging families to get outside. Mrs. Obama also spoke after Laura Bush at the Flight 93 Memorial commemorating the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Other first ladies including Nancy Reagan and Hilary Rodham Clinton have also supported the nation’s public parks.

First ladies information compiled with support from the National Park Foundation

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