The Baumgardner family really like parks. Last year, for the National Park Service (NPS) centennial, Neel, Lauren, Emma and Claire made it their mission to visit all 16 National Park units in Texas. They came up with the hashtag #TX16in16 to document their trip and shared photos on Instagram and Twitter.
While some teen and pre-teen girls may cringe at the thought of road trips with their parents to educational spots like the homestead of Lyndon B. Johnson, Emma and Claire don’t seem to mind spending time learning about mammoths, throwing atlatls, or swimming in the Rio Grande.
The girls come by their love of the great outdoors naturally – their dad, Neel Baumgardner, an environmental historian, teaches at UT San Antonio and writes about the history of the National Parks. Neel is also Texas Land Conservancy’s newest board member. We are thrilled to have his expertise and historical knowledge to help us gain a broader understanding of the context of land conservation in our great state.
I recently sat down with Neel and discussed the history of the creation of Big Bend National Park. Neel told me that in the 1930s Roger Toll, former superintendent of Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone parks, had the enviable job of travelling around Texas and researching which spots were ripe for preservation. Because of Toll’s advocacy (and the work of many others) places such as the San Antonio missions, Padre Island, and Big Bend have all been protected by the NPS for the benefit of future generations.
With Toll’s legacy in mind, Neel and his family traveled around Texas visiting sites of ecological, historical and cultural significance. While they hopped from one site to another throughout the year, Neel often thought about the history of the Park units and their current state: considering the context of their protection and what challenges they face today. Public lands face an uncertain future. Learning how and why these special places were set aside might help us continue to protect them today.
I asked Neel to share his favorite Texas national park story and he told me about his family’s visit to Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in the Panhandle. This site was a Paleoindian flint quarry. The high quality, rainbow-hued Alibates flint is found in sites throughout North America, indicating that it was highly prized by the Paleoindian people.
The family visited Alibates twice; the first time their explorations were rained out, which ended up being an excellent opportunity for them to learn from Park Ranger, Jacob Collins, who was working at the information center. Jacob is Cherokee and does interpretation at Alibates. Jacob showed Emma and Claire how to fashion arrowheads, how to throw an atlatl, how to shoot a bow and arrow, and even how to make a friction fire to warm up on a overcast spring day.
This had such a big impact on Claire that she is now on the archery team at school. Emma later joined the Youth Presidential Leadership Council at the LBJ National Historical Park. Jacob took the family through the whole Paleoindian experience in one day – connecting them to the history of this place and to the land through interpretation.
In October, the Baumgardners went back and visited Alibates when the sun was shining. This time they explored the pit dwellings and found petroglyphs on a rock overhanging the Canadian River where the Paleoindians worked the flint to make it into arrows and other tools. Jacob led the tour again, sharing his knowledge of the Paleoindian culture and helping the family to form personal connections to the history of this stunning park.
Neel said, “The best teachers, like Jacob, can really bring history alive by showing how people lived, worked through problems, and adapted to their environment.”