By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
Connection to the land was the theme as National Public Lands Day was celebrated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Saturday, Sept. 24. To make it more special, the director of the National Park Service (NPS) visited the Park in recognition of the day. Charles Sams III, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is the 19th NPS director and the first Native American to hold that position.
“Our mission, under the Organic Act, is to steward America’s resources, to steward those places that are so very special to the American people,” said Sams. “Our job is also to do that in perpetuity. Just as my people must do it for seven generations, the National Park Service must do this for future generations and not just now.”
Sams related that 300,000 volunteers across the NPS donate over 6.5 million hours of service, valued at over $185 million, annually. “Today, on National Public Lands Day, we have this great opportunity to continue to fulfill our obligations to ensure that the flora and fauna are welcomed back into the land and that reciprocity exists between the human and the natural environment.”
He added, “National Public Lands Day provides the perfect opportunity to get involved in stewardship as we recognize the significance of our public lands in making our lives better. Spaces like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide vital opportunities for people to recreate, relax, revive their minds and bodies.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed spoke on the connection that Cherokee people have had to the land for thousands of years. “I think the rest of the country has learned what we, as Cherokee and as Indigenous people, have always known – that our connection is first and foremost to the land, and, equally as important, or maybe even more important, our connection to one another. I think if today reminds you of anything, it’s the importance of putting our devices down. I think we can no longer ignore the correlation between a decline in mental health, especially amongst our children and our adolescents, and the amount of time that we are spending not connected to the land and not connected to one another.”
He continued, “Everything about us, about humanity, is inextricably connected to the land. I thank you today for being here to give back, to be good stewards of the land.”
National Public Lands Day was started in 1994 and is recognized annually on the fourth Saturday in September.
Cassius Cash, Great Smoky Mountains National Park superintendent, commented, “Thank you so much for taking your precious time to be here with us on a beautiful, beautiful Saturday morning as we celebrate National Public Lands Day. Let me tell you that we really need you – the volunteer work that we’re going to be receiving here today. 14.1 million people is what we had last year, right? And, as we’re starting to see the fall colors come in as we were coming over the mountain, I have no doubt that we’ll probably see something close to that as we close out the year.”
He spoke of the need for volunteers in the Park. “Having the distinct honor of hosting that many visitors, as you would imagine, has a lot of challenges that come with hosting that many people – wear and tear on infrastructure – and sometimes that can feel daunting to keep that service level to a point where we are all proud of. Feeling daunting most of the days, but today, I feel inspired and I’m very much appreciative of showing the spirit and soul of the volunteerism that is so important to this park.”
National Public Lands Day is organized annually by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) along with the NPS. Meri-Margaret Deoudes, NEEF president, spoke during Saturday’s event, “We started this concept of National Public Lands Day 29 years ago with three sites and a couple hundred volunteers. In the last decade alone I’m really, really pleased that we’ve had over 1 million volunteers, like you all, coming out on a Saturday in September to support our public lands. That’s been 5 million hours of volunteer work…we need that work on our public lands. That’s the value of $133 million in the last decade alone. So this is really important in terms of preserving this great place and places like this across the country for all of us to enjoy.”
The dignitaries present spoke about the healing properties of nature and how it can affect people’s mental health positively. Rear Admiral Denise Hinton, deputy surgeon general for U.S. Public Health, noted, “What a glorious place for us to truly all come together to enjoy the fresh air and the beautiful scenery and just lend a hand with projects helping people and the planet. This is where we all come to feel connected and to be connected.”
She further said, “For the COVID-19 public health emergency, it did bring out just unprecedented mental health deterioration. These have been and still are trying times for many Americans. In addition to other concerns, the Office of the Surgeon General has identified youth mental health as a priority.”
Rear Adm. Hinton related that in early 2021 research found that suspected suicide attempts were 51 percent higher for adolescent girls and 4 percent higher for adolescent boys compared to that same timeframe two years earlier.
“Correction of these challenges will not happen overnight. It will take a community-wide approach to stem the tide of mental anguish and hopelessness that increasingly plagues our youth. The good news is that there are free and accessible ways to begin that change. And, the parks and the public lands are well-positioned to be part of that solution. All of you are staged to be a part of that solution and we just thank you for your commitment as is evidenced by you all being here today spending time in nature and volunteering for activities that help put people on the path to hope and healing and to lead happier, healthier, and more fulfilled lives.”
Chief Sneed commented, “If the pandemic did one thing, it opened our eyes to the need for connection – connection to the land, connection to one another.”
Director Sams said, “In our very connected world, I’m inspired by disconnecting for a bit and allowing myself to connect with you, my fellow land stewards, as we roll up our sleeves and celebrate the precious gifts that we have in our National Parks. Your volunteerism embodies the collaborative conservation approach that the President’s “America the Beautiful” initiative seeks to embrace…the work here today is so important. It helps us in ensuring that the Smokies that we experience today is nurtured, cared for, and respected to help us meet the mission of preserving it for those future generations.”
Deoudes gave a personal anecdote, “One of my greatest pleasures during COVID was going out to Great Falls, which is near my home. I took out my son, who was 12 at the time, and our dog and it was a really nice way for us to relax and reconnect with the beautiful land that we all hold so dear. And also just unplug…during a really stressful time I got rejuvenated walking along those trails. So, I look forward to the work we have ahead of us today in doing that.”
Director Sams concluded by thanking those who help make the Parks accessible and enjoyable for all. “Volunteering is the cornerstone of what makes America great. And you being out here today continuing to help make America what it is and standing in the forefront of protecting these resources for yourself and for your future generations.”