NMSU Celebrates National Park Service Centennial with Classes, Public Events

For 100 years, the National Park Service has worked to preserve more than 400 of the nation’s most intriguing and historically significant locations.

In recognition of this centennial, New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences will present classes, public lectures and a blog series bringing the magnificence of national parks to the NMSU campus and Las Cruces community.

“The national parks preserve the jewels of our country, both in natural beauty and in history,” said Jon Hunner, a professor of history who is helping to plan NMSU’s NPS centennial celebration. “It’s not only something that has preserved our history and our natural beauty, but it’s served as a model for other countries to preserve their own.”

From Chaco Canyon to the Santa Fe Historic Trail, New Mexico is home to 14 diverse national parks. Beginning this fall, the “College of Arts and Sciences Celebrates the Parks” initiative will host superintendents from different parks around the state in a free, bi-monthly public lecture series.

“These parks have important cultural value to our country and the State of New Mexico,” said Enrico Pontelli, interim dean of the college. “This project is a way for the College of Arts and Sciences to support our faculty and share the historic journey of our nation’s national parks with our campus community.”

The series will also feature national representatives, such as Julia Washburn, associate director of education for the National Park Service, and William Tweed, a former NPS employee who will discuss the impact of climate change on the nation’s parks.

With speakers also making special presentations to NMSU classes, these events will offer students the opportunity to network with potential future employers.

“I am extremely pleased to note that many of our students have interned in various park units and have also found careers upon completion of their degrees in Las Cruces,” said Peter Kopp, director of NMSU’s public history program. “As an educator, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing our students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to real-world work in historical interpretation and programing.”

This fall, Kopp will offer a new graduate and upper division reading seminar on the NPS to NMSU students. Carol Campbell, associate professor of geography, will also teach an upper-level undergraduate course on the geography of the national parks, which will include fieldtrips to nearby sites.

“Educating students about the U.S. National Parks is one of the most rewarding activities I engage in,” Campbell said. “On a personal level, parks have fostered my desire for a ‘living laboratory,’ where families and friends can go exploring and develop a land ethic, or shared respect for the parks and the lives within them – wild and human.”

01/25/2010: History professor Jon Hunner (photo by Darren Phillips)
01/25/2010: History professor Jon Hunner (photo by Darren Phillips)

As part of the centennial celebration, Hunner is currently producing an ongoing blog about the NPS, called “Driven by History.” Every Monday evening, Hunner posts a new short history of an NPS unit at drivenbyhistory.blogspot.com

While on sabbatical this summer and fall, Hunner will take his blog on the road, driving to national parks around the country to research and write firsthand about these locations. His goal is to write a history of the United States through the lens of the parks where the historic events actually happened.

“We became who we are as a country because of the encounters, the exchanges that happened at these parks,” he said. “They really are one of the best places where we can get directly connected with our past.”

Hunner’s travels will take him across the United States, exploring parks like Death Valley and Yellowstone, as well as historic sites such as Mississippi’s Vicksburg National Military Park and Brown v. Board of Education in Kansas. Upon his return, Hunner plans to compile his blog posts into a book.

For those who can’t make the transcontinental trek to explore the nation’s parks, the organizers behind the “College of Arts and Sciences Celebrates the Parks” assure there are plenty of interesting locations close to home.

While most have visited White Sands National Monument or Carlsbad Caverns National Park, local historic districts – including Mesquite, Alameda and Mesilla Park – are also the result of National Park Service programs, Kopp explained.

“In short,” he said, “there is a much bigger story and purpose of the parks than just the ‘crown jewels’ such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Those of us involved with the planning hope that the centennial lecture series, classes and other events broaden the public’s perception of the wonders of the park system and the challenges facing it.”

Author:  Dana Beasley – NMSU