As I reflect back on the isolation we experienced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but recoil at the memories of our shared trauma and anxiety as we collectively navigated public health challenges, political uncertainty and economic instability. And yet, I am also overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude for our outdoor spaces — particularly our local, state, and national park sites.

In addition to biking the Mission Reach trails and visiting the San Antonio Missions during my free afternoons to cope with feelings of the unknown, I came up with a list of state parks and national parks in Texas and spent most weekends driving to new places. For me, visiting new outdoor spaces and hiking trails for months on end during the pandemic was my saving grace and coping mechanism to handle an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and dread. For many others, access to green space affords healthy opportunities to be active. Research also shows that spending time in nature can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

In celebration of National Park Week, I invite you to reflect on what parks mean to you and your communities, enjoy the ample opportunities they provide to visitors and pledge to protect these places we hold so dear. Just last month, I was able to join the National Parks Conservation Association for its annual conference in Washington, D.C., as a member of the NPCA’s Texas Young Leaders Advocacy Council. The council aims to engage young people with varying backgrounds and experiences by training them to be advocates and ambassadors for NPCA’s work and Texas campaigns.

From March 28-29, more than 300 park advocates from all over the country descended on the capitol to lobby for our national parks and share their personal stories about the value of the outdoors and historic sites. I was a part of the Texas delegation, which included eight volunteer park advocates led by NPCA Texas Regional Director Cary Dupuy and Sandra Ramos, Texas Coastal program manager. During our time in Washington, officials stressed the importance of durable conservation efforts, which entails buy-in and support at both the local and state levels of government.

Texans can see a great example of federal dollars benefiting their local communities at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which is the first and only UNESCO World Heritage site in Texas. Thanks to infrastructure funding from the Great American Outdoor Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law, a $290,000 grant recently funded repairs to the aqueduct at Mission Espada. Repairs to the aqueduct, a national historic landmark, are one of countless projects that make up a deferred maintenance backlog list that the National Park Service is trying to address.

In meetings with the offices of Texas congressional representatives such as U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) and Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas), advocates spoke about the importance of maintaining places like our missions, protecting areas like Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, updating antiquated mining laws and the importance of designating new historic sites that tell the complete American story.

Last October, Texas got its newest national park site in Marfa. The Blackwell School, which received bipartisan backing to become a part of our parks system, is a half-acre school campus that will honor the modern Mexican American experience and shed light on segregation experienced by Hispanics in the Southwestern United States from the late 1800s to the mid-1960s. Daniel Hernandez, a member of our Texas delegation with a familial connection to Blackwell, was able to share his advocacy efforts at our Capitol meetings and highlighted the importance of preserving these collective stories for future generations.

National Parks sites all over the country saw a surge in visitation during the pandemic. In fact, between 2011 and 2019, park visitation increased by 17% but staffing was reduced by 16%. Due to underfunding, parks struggle to fulfill their mission. Taking advocacy efforts to our nation’s capital, and including local voices with close ties to these sites, is key as we seek to support funding increases to our parks to address issues like decaying infrastructure, understaffing, sensitive wildlife habitat protections, and park resiliency and sustainability.

Texas is home to 16 National Park Service sites and over 5.9 million people visited the parks in 2021, contributing $579 million in economic benefits to the state. Any guesses on the most-visited site in Texas in 2021? It was the San Antonio Missions.

Being a part of the NPCA’s Texas Young Leaders Advocacy Council has taken my love for hiking and the outdoors to new heights and given me a purpose larger than myself. Not only was I able to connect with like-minded individuals from all over the nation during lobby days, but I’ve been able to learn about so many of the issues and threats our parks face. I left Washington feeling inspired, invigorated and empowered. The experience helped me develop a deeper appreciation for our local green spaces in San Antonio and historic sites. The park advocates whom I crossed paths with, by telling their stories and joining the fight, truly embody the importance of collective impact.

The threats of encroaching development, natural disasters, and climate change have only grown more pronounced — and our national park sites will bear the brunt. But we cannot afford to lose hope. This National Park Week, I encourage you to join local and national organizations that support America’s most treasured places. Be it through signing up for a beach cleanup at Padre Island, joining an organization like  NPCA and getting to lobby in Washington, or volunteering your time with the San Antonio Missions and the San Antonio Food Bank to farm and collect fresh produce on Mission grounds, you too can get involved and make a difference. 

Rocío Guenther has called San Antonio home for more than a decade. Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, she bridges two countries, two cultures, and two languages. Rocío has demonstrated experience in...