Conversation with … National Park Advisor Judy Burke
Ryan Summerlin April 26, 2012
One item on Grand Lake MayorJudy Burke’s bucket list is visiting all the national parks and monuments, which would put her into an elite league of individuals who have accomplished this, she said.
She estimates she’s visited about one-third of the 397 national parks and monuments in the U.S. so far, and hopes to complete the list before “I get so old I can’t.”
Burke’s love of parks made a good match for an appointment in 2010 to the National Park Service Advisory Board, a 12-person citizen board that makes policy recommendations to the director of the National Park Service and, ultimately, to the Department of the Interior. She serves on the National Natural Landmarks Committee, which during her time of service has considered designations in Colorado such as additional fossil beds near Golden, Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, and areas in southwest Colorado.
But Burke’s cheer-leading of the role that national parks play in our lives goes beyond her advisory role. When she became mayor, Burke took it upon herself to be a liaison to the Park to improve town-Park relations. A few years ago, she testified in favor of Rocky Mountain National Park wilderness designation in Washington D.C. before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Wilderness Areas and National Parks, and she is currently helping to spearhead an educational center on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park to benefit area students.
In this National Park Week – with free entrance to all our nation’s national parks from April 21-29 – Burke sat down to speak about her love of parks, which first blossomed when she was just 5-years old.
When was your first visit to a national park?
I’ve always had a love for the national parks. My first experience, one I remember anyway, was my folks brought us out on vacation when I was in kindergarten. We had such a wonderful experience in the Park. We came to Rocky Mountain National Park. I was always a tomboy, and I wore chaps and a cowboy hat, and I had a pair of kid pistols. My brother was always teasing me, and he took one of my pistols and hid it in Rocky Mountain National Park that day. And I didn’t ever have time to find it.
I swore up and down that someday I was going to come back to this park and I was going to find my pistol -well, of course that didn’t happen.
How did you get involved with the National Park Service Advisory Board?
I got a call from Vaughn Baker, who is the superintendent of this Park, and he said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I was asked to submit some names for possible appointment of the National Park Service Advisory Board, and I gave them your name.’ I said it sounds like something I’d like to be involved in.
What’s been your experience on the board so far?
I visited with some of the youth programs the park department has been instrumental in working with in Washington D.C. Coming from a rural park, like this, it was really interesting to me to see what they’re doing with urban parks.
In particular there was one young gal (about 16 years old), she was a Native American, and she said, ‘You know, I have spent all my life in an urban area and I had never realized there were stars in the sky until this program came along.” (Program organizers) took (students) out to one of the outlying parks and they spent the night and talked about recycling and conservation and all of those things, and she said, ‘I laid there and I realized there were stars in the sky.’ It makes you understand that these parks can be a big part of their lives.
Next meeting we went to the Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco. They have an institute for inner-city kids from the San Francisco area. It’s a wonderful program.
The latest trip was to Everglades National Park.
They talked me into going ‘swamp sleuth sloshing.’ I am deathly afraid of snakes, and so they didn’t tell me until I got out there in my waders that there are pythons in that area. Anyway, we got to experience sloshing through the swamp – we were probably up to our knees – and seeing the birds and the wildlife and so forth. They also have a great conservation program.
Did you see any pythons?
Well, not in the Park. But they took us for lunch into one of their park areas and we had sandwiches. They had a gentleman there who is with a python survival foundation and he had one in a bag, and my being deathly afraid of them, I’m watching this bag and he keeps moving it around, and finally he’s going to get this python out of this bag, and he tips it over and that snake comes rushing out and heads for the hills. And the guy is chasing him, holding onto his tail, and he got him back, but he said this is really unusual, normally they are very calm and docile. Well by this time, I’m standing on the picnic table and saying, ‘Get that thing out of here!’
By getting on this board, has it changed your perspective on the value of parks in this nation?
It certainly has. There were a lot of things I didn’t consider about the parks. For example, our park here is an economic driver when you look at 3.5 million people coming through the park – and over the last couple of years we’ve experienced a large increase of people entering the park from this side. And 19 full-time Park employees with a payroll of about $1.1 million helps add to the economy of this community. Park volunteers come up here. They spend money, they go to our restaurants, they come into town. So it is an economic driver. We as a community derive 70 percent of our sales taxes and our budget from when the park is open, so it certainly makes a difference when the park is open and operating.
You talk about them helping the economy, but they also help families. Those family units that maybe never do anything together because everybody is going 10 different directions in the city, but they can come up and they have an opportunity to be in the Park, and I think that’s great.
I was really surprised, when our local school asked the kids (Grand Lake Elementary School students) how many of them had ever gone into Rocky Mountain National Park and stopped and had picnics, and over 50 percent had never experienced the park other than just to drive through. We have a 450,000-acre park as an outdoor lab to teach kids about water safety and water conservation and water clarity and even the history of the community being in mining and ranching and tourism, and we don’t have anything on this side of the park to help students understand their history and where they’re coming from in this county. I’m in love with the idea of finding ways the park can work with our communities, not only Grand Lake, but every community in the state.
We need to get the kids out of the living room from in front of the TV and get them out to enjoy what we really have here.
Out of all the parks you’ve seen, what is your favorite park?
I’m prejudice. I’d still have to say Rocky is the greatest park.