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Reclaiming Health, History & Happiness Through Nature

Red Fox, National Historic Site. Washington State.

With so much going on in the world today (pandemic, invasion of Ukraine, and our own divided national discourse), we are forced to be pro-active in finding our new way of life, reducing stress, and even restoring our individual sense of meaning and purpose. What better way to do that than to get out and enjoy and explore our public lands that belong to all of us and that are open to everyone.

All public land was once tribal land and Native Americans have a connection to every national park, wildlife refuge, and wilderness across the country. Here in Whatcom County (and all of Western Washington and British Columbia), we respectfully acknowledge that the territory where we live and work are the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish people, which includes the Lhaq’temish (Lummi Nation) and Noxws’a?aq (Nooksack Indian Tribe). See additional history in the End-Notes section below.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Washington State.

“If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was and what it might, with understanding and loving husbandry, yet become. These are islands in time — with nothing to date them on the calendar of mankind. ” -Harvey Broome

Pheasant, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. California.

When we think about public lands, I am pretty sure most people go immediately to our National Parks. And they should. America’s National Parks showcase our most beautiful places, frame nature and wildness, and bestow a sense of national pride as we talk and begin to interact again with travelers from Europe, Asia, South America, and other places. But there is so much more to America’s heritage of public lands.

Last month, I drove to Yosemite, perhaps one of the most recognizable and iconic of our National Parks. But along the way, I was able to also enjoy our sometimes less visited National Wildlife Refuges (NWR’s) in Washington, Oregon, and California. There are 568 Refuges nationwide, and you can find information on each of them at the U.S. National Fish & Wildlife site.

Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska.

Thirty-plus years ago, living in Maryland, I remember going to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to Blackwater NWR, and to Virginia’s nearby Chincoteague NWR to watch waterfowl migrate along the Atlantic flyway. And since this was pre-Bellingham and pre-Nooksack and Skagit Rivers, these were the best places to see bald eagles at that time and along the east coast.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Washington.

In each of my recent trips, I have planned to visit Refuges both to provide some relief from long road-trips as well as time with my camera. President Theodore Roosevelt created the first Refuge in 1903 with Florida’s Pelican Island Refuge. Today, at more than ninety-five million acres, Refuges are a photographer’s dream. In fact, wildlife photography is a priority public use on NWR’s, and you can find bird-blinds, overlooks, and wildlife drives at many of them. Best yet, most are free. Only thirty-five charge access fees and a National Parks Pass works every time.

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. Idaho.

If you visit all our National Parks, and Refuges -- there are still National Forests, Conservation Areas, Wilderness, Seashores and Lakeshores, and Memorials and Battlefields to enjoy. 840 million acres, more than one third of the country, is public land – your land, supported by taxpayers and managed by federal, state, or local government – and America’s Heritage. You can find an inventory of protected areas with Protected Areas Database of the United States (PADUS)—managed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

If you needed more incentive to get outdoors (?), public land (and often private lands like Land Trust properties) can provide mental rest and relaxation, as well as enormous health benefits. Many people, including me, would be completely adrift if not for the opportunity to get outside over the past two-plus years, and to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the natural world.

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

Camas Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Idaho.

Don’t take my word for it, go online and search for “benefits of spending just fifteen minutes in the outdoors.” Better yet, go outside and stare at a tree, take a walk, wander in the woods, or listen to the wind, shore break, or bugling elk and gauge the improvement directly. The American Psychological Association lists benefits including lower stress, better mood, increased empathy and cooperation, increased happiness, and positive social interactions. Other research shows that being outdoors can decrease mental distress, improve manageability of life tasks, and support graceful aging (fewer sleep difficulties, less aches and pains, and improved mobility and ability to perform daily activities).

Here in Bellingham, a local nonprofit Recreation Northwest has started a program called Parkscriptions that partners with doctors and other health care providers to prescribe time outdoors and connects patients with positive outdoor experiences.

Snowy Egrets, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. California.

And, while visiting your lands, getting inspired, de-stressed, and healthy – remember that they are also your responsibility. Once gone, you will never have them again. As more and more people use these places to regain their own sense of place in the world, as summer approaches, and with mask mandates dropping, the sure bet is that these areas will be more crowded than ever. So, plan trips for less-visited areas, at off-peak times (shoulder seasons are also some of the best times for photographs). Place nature and wildlife first – and let’s allow other species (and Park Rangers) to catch their breath as well. And as I say in each travel update – be nice and be helpful or don’t go!

Bald eagle, Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. Idaho.


The realization that all public land was once tribal land was on my mind recently as I made my first stop on the way to Yosemite at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR just south of Seattle Washington. A Department of the Interior blog provides this history:

Billy Frank Jr. was a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe and an environmental justice leader and treaty rights activist. He was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for his commitment to protecting the Nisqually people’s traditional way of life. Frank was arrested more than 50 times in the 1960s and 70s during the “Fish War,” asserting not only the Nisqually’s’ treaty rights but all local tribes. Frank led Native American groups near Puget Sound in “fish-ins,” modeled after the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement. Frank’s activism led to the 1974 “Boldt Decision,” a Supreme Court case that reaffirmed tribal co-management and conservation of salmon resources in Washington state. In December 2015, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State was renamed in his honor.

Living here in Whatcom County, the link between public and tribal land has special meaning as local tribes have been great friends and partners in a number of conservation and land issues. In 2010, the large area of coastal waters including Puget Sound, Juan de Fuca Strait, and the Strait of Georgia were officially named the Salish Sea to pay homage to First Nations history and to reflect a growing understanding of native culture. The new name was originally proposed by Bert Webber, a retired Western Washington University professor of environmental and marine science (and a very good friend).

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