History doesn’t stop.
That’s why National Parks Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno said it is important to keep creating national parks.
Pierno’s morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater will include a little history lesson about the establishment of the National Parks System and NPCA, as well as the relationship between the two.
In addition to some trivia, Pierno said she will discuss the role that national parks have played over the years and the relevance of continuing to set up new sites.
National parks, Pierno said, “preserve our history, our stories and are an important part of our democracy.”
In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, which Pierno said was groundbreaking. Since that time, the National Park Service has established 425 sites.
The latest addition to the long list of national seashores, parkways and recreational areas is the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument.
Located in three sites — Sumner and Glendora, Mississippi, and Chicago — the monument tells the story of Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting Mississippi who was kidnapped, tortured and lynched for whistling at a white woman.
Till-Mobley, his mother, insisted on keeping an open casket during his funeral in Chicago, “so the world would see what happened to her son,” igniting the civil rights movement in the United States, Pierno said.
Chesapeake Bay, which holds a special place in Pierno’s heart and story, might be the next landmark to join the sites overseen by the National Park Service.
Prior to joining NPCA in 2004, Pierno worked as the director of Chesapeake Bay programs at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and as the vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“I spent more than a decade focused on restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, so I’m very excited to see this opportunity coming forward to create a Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area,” Pierno said, noting that she feels lucky to have been able to align her love for nature and water with her work.
During her first years at NPCA, serving as the vice president of regional operations, Pierno opened offices across the country, including the Midwest and the Southwestern United States. She said the organization doubled in size, going from about 12 offices to 24 in just a few years. The position, she said, allowed her to travel all over the country and visit a variety of national parks.
“I always joke – the one I love the most is the last one I went to,” Pierno said.
Right now, this happens to be the Grand Teton National Park. The landscape there, she said, is extraordinary, and the mountain range is spectacular. Visitors to the site, Pierno said, have a high chance of seeing bears or moose.
In her current role, Pierno spends a lot of time advocating for national parks, working on policy issues that impact them, meeting with leaders and more. She said 19 years after she started working at NPCA, the organization has grown not only in terms of its budget, but also the number of people who are involved in it, with more than 200 staff members and hundreds of volunteers.
Some of the challenges that NPCA faces, Pierno said, are closely connected to climate change, which affects national parks in a devastating way. Intense wildfires, for example, are endangering giant sequoia and redwood trees, which the organization strives to protect, she said.
Pierno said with parks being “a common ground” in a world with many divisions, she hopes her lecture inspires people to have important conversations and continue finding ways to “solve some of our most challenging problems, including climate change.”
While Pierno hasn’t been to all 425 sites, she said the count is in triple digits. Some of her colleagues, on the other hand, are very close to “reaching that magic total,” she said.
In order to keep track of all the national parks she has visited, Pierno said has set up a box, which she uses to store maps of those parks. She said she also tries to get stamps from visitor centers, which “helps bring back memories” and “is a great way to remember the year and the date” of the visit.
In November, Pierno said she plans to travel to the National Park of American Samoa. She said she is looking forward to the opportunity to see coral reefs, as well as explore a new culture and pristine nature.
“Natural parks are fabulous,” Pierno said, noting that some sites have captured her heart, making her come back with second and even third visits.
The first big national park that Pierno said she visited was Shenandoah, spread along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
“I remember staying in one of those cabins that was very rustic, and it was a great experience,” Pierno said. “We loved it.”
Growing up on the East Coast, she said she was “always trying to find a patch of woods or a swamp or something to play in nature (and) was very fortunate to be able to have opportunities like that” by frequenting county and city parks.
Her parents, Pierno said, would take her to places like Gettysburg, where they would stay for just an afternoon or a day. Connecting young people to national parks, Pierno said, is crucial. Without experiencing national parks, she said, the younger generation will not have the motivation to keep protecting them in the future.
“It just brings joy to my heart to take (my grandchildren) into the parks and to see how much they love it,” Pierno said. “I think that’s really what it’s all about – it’s about a place to connect and bring joy. The more we bring our young people into the parks, (the more), I think, it’s going to be beneficial for families and for our future as a nation.”