Tom Cassidy is director of of The Nature Conservancy’s federal land programs.

America’s national parks are a constant in my life, both with my family and my work as the Conservancy’s director of federal land programs.

And sometimes the parks, the Conservancy and my work and family come together…as in June 2008, when I traveled to Badlands National Park — first, to celebrate the acquisition and protection of two ranches in South Dakota’s Conata Basin with our staff, trustees, neighbors and officials from the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service, and then to explore other NPS sites in the western Dakotas with my wife and 15-year-old son.

The work of the Conservancy, the Park Service and other partners in the Badlands exemplifies the stories told by Ken Burns in his recently concluded PBS film series on the National Parkscitizens working to protect our nation’s wonderlands.

A portion of one ranch lies within Badlands National Park. Most of the Conservancy’s land will continue to be a working ranch and managed in collaboration with partners to advance the recovery of the black-footed ferret, North America’s most endangered mammal, and the prairie dog whose ecological needs extend well beyond the boundaries of the national park. We were privileged to spend time in this area with Badlands Park Superintendent Paige Baker, who generously shared insights informed by his Native American heritage. My family will always treasure our time with him on Sheep Mountain overlooking Badlands National Park and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Conservancy’s supporters and partners are a part of the living history of our national parks. Great Sand Dunes National Park, the nation’s most recently established park, was made possible in 2004 by the Conservancy’s acquisition of the 100,000 acre Baca Ranch for $32 million. With support from Secretaries of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Gale Norton (and our current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, when he was Colorado’s attorney general), Congressman Scott McInnis and Senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the citizens of the San Luis Valley, we worked for more than five years to ensure Congress appropriated the funds necessary to protect this area of great human and ecological significance. Approximately 12,000 acres of the Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch are within the Park boundary.

The Nature Conservancy is also a significant owner of lands within other national parks:

  • Santa Cruz Island is the largest of Califonia’s 8 channel islands and the largest within Channel Islands National Park.  The Conservancy purchased 90 percent of this 62,000 acre island in 1978.  In 2000, the Conservancy gave the NPS 8,500 acres (14 percent of the island) — valued at more than $68 million, one of the largest gifts to the Park Service in its history.

Today, the Conservancy continues to own 47,000 acres and co-manages the island with NPS.  In addition, we are working with NPS and other partners to implement one of the most successful park restoration projects in the world.  By removing cattle, sheep and most recently, feral pigs, and ensuring the return of bald eagles to this island paradise, we will secure the long term vitality of island’s unique vegetation and rapid recovery of the rare island fox, the island’s largest native mammal.

  • The Conservancy is a significant landowner in Florida’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, where we partner with NPS and the State of Florida to protect the wild wetlands of the St. John’s River. This highly productive estuary, where the Conservancy own 9,500 acres of coastal islands and saltmarsh, is full of oyster reefs and provides habitat for sea turtles and manatees.

This is just a sample of the numerous land protection projects the Conservancy and NPS have collaborated on over the years.

Ken Burns’ film has popularized the description of the National Parks as America’s best idea. It is a privilege to work with so many Conservancy colleagues and the National Park Service to be a part of the great story of protecting the lands and waters essential to the long-term viability of our legacy of protected lands.

(Image: The author overlooks Badlands National Park. Courtesy of Tom Cassidy.)

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