This presentation is part of the Texas Cultural Landscape Symposium, February 23-26, Waco, TX.
Elizabeth Jackson: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Jackson. I’m Chief of Interpretation with Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and this is a picture of Guadalupe Mountains. A while back, I actually have, let me backtrack, I have been at the park since about 2015. When you first get to a national park, because we’re moved around quite a bit, you begin to realize that there’s a couple of things that you first identify that you want to accomplish while you’re there. So one of the things that I realized quickly when I started my job as a Chief was that I, you sort of go through and you look at all of your waysides and your interpretive plans and then you look at your interpretive media. That usually includes things like your online resources, and then I watched our park film. Our park film was created in the 80s and it’s pretty dated.
So how many folks have actually been to Guadalupe Mountains? I see a few hands. That’s great. Good. Because that’s, most of the time, the first thing I hear is, of course, people, they stop in there and they say, “I didn’t realize you were a national park,” and they use our restroom. So we’re there for you in many ways. But Guadalupe Mountains was established to interpret and preserve and educate about the Permian Reef, which is a 260 million year old reef. But we’re a wilderness area. We’re also 86,000 acres of unbisected wilderness. We’re in West Texas and a lot of times people will compare us to Big Bend. I kind of say, “We’re taller and smaller,” because we do have the highest point in Texas.
So in realizing that our park film was very old, I realized that I needed to start focusing on my project. And I also should mention that we have a 50 year anniversary coming up in 2022, so right around the bend. But the challenge for creating a new park film is, funding is always an issue. But for us, I started to think about this project and I realized the challenge for us would be how to make a wilderness park relevant in the 21st Century? Which is what I’m always struggling with as the Chief of Interpretation with this park.
The first thing I thought is, “Well, who are we as Guadalupe Mountains? Are we just the highest point in Texas? While that’s stunning, are we more than this? Are we more than amazing hiking and camping and back country experiences?” I would say, “Yeah. And are we more than McKittrick Canyon in the fall?” Has anybody been out to visit us? Yeah, it’s pretty stunning. And this is just a really quick view of a little bit of our fall color. And a lot of folks know us then and that’s, we get a lot of visitation. But I would argue that we’re actually much more than this.
So the goal is really to connect visitors to the park interpretive themes through education and awareness and allow visitors to connect where their interests begin. And the best way for me to do that and tell all of the stories on the landscape for Guadalupe would be through a cultural landscape concept for our film.
And we’ve had some really, really great definitions of cultural landscapes. Here’s yet another one. Cultural landscapes are landscapes that have been affected, influenced, or shaped by human interaction. And most parks actually are, most national parks, state parks, whether we identify them as a cultural landscape, many times we don’t. We just say “We’re America’s storytellers.” Right. And I like the definition of the cultural landscape because to me, many times we as a visitor, when you come to this place, we hope that it’s largely unchanged. We hope that we get to tell those stories, that we get to help interpret those stories on the landscape. And I used this shot because it’s a very wide view with El Capitan in the background.
When I started to think about how I would, after, of course, after working through how we would be able to fund the park film and then finding and contracting, we’re now thinking about, “Well, what stories do we want to tell? There’s a lot of stories. Do we start with a fossilized reef of 260 million years? Or native American tribes and native peoples on the landscape, most predominantly Mescalero for us. Of course, we have the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach, a mail route going through our park. We actually have one of the largest intact historic sections, which we’re waiting to get a historic designation on. We, of course, have a Buffalo Soldier story, which we share with Fort Davis. And our Frijole Ranch site, which can be toured, which is some of the earliest occupation of white settlers to that area. We tell this story of, “How did they live on the landscape? How did they survive the many different families that either advanced Frijole Ranch, made it bigger, lived there?” That’s part of our story as well.
And of course, Wallace Pratt, one of the premier renowned petroleum geologists to the area who, with a group of folks, purchased McKittrick Canyon, 5000 plus acres, preserved it and built Pratt Cabin as well as Ship on the Desert, which we all recognize now has been recognized as one of the eleven most endangered places and historic structures. So lots of stories there. And then, of course, leading to Guadalupe Mountains National Park being designated as a national park and a wilderness area in 1972 to the present. So lots of activity and these are just a few of the things. And it got me really trying to think of which stories to tell, and I’m still struggling with that because there are so many different stories to tell in many of our national parks. And how do you incorporate that into a national park film? You’ve really only got 15 to 20 minutes depending on how long you guys will sit, right?
And this is the ruins of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Stop, the Pinery. Many people come to visit this. I’ve included a couple key points in this presentation to familiarize you with many of these places. So, where do we begin in starting to look at this? Well, I started contracting, got a producer and we start with scripting, then film development and the segments that showcase these stories, narrowing it down, meetings with my staff, meetings with the superintendent. How do we narrow down these stories? And I think we have, as I had showed you those stories that we’re going to narrow down for the park film, and then editing, review, editing and refinement.
This is an image from the Mescalero Blessing Feast in 2017, and I show this because it’s important to recognize that this is a living landscape and we’re very proud of that, that different groups still come back and use and honor that space. The tribe, the Mescalero, came in 2017 and had a blessing feast at the park. So for us, we do think of the landscape and we hope that many groups will still come and consider us when they want to tell their stories. It’s particularly important to remember that the connections to our past help us understand our present and look towards our future.
This is Smith Springs, which is a historic spring in the park. And one of the things that has become most important for us to tell, not just through interpretation in my staff but also with our park film, is the human use, the impacts, the processes that help visitors connect. The more that visitors learn, when you go and experience a really good interpretive program, it should resonate with you and make you think, “Well, how are you going to connect with this information?” Natural features and landmarks help visitors ask questions and discover the past and we’re hoping to tease all of that out in the park film.
This is another site, our Salt Basin Dunes. Many people just don’t actually get out to visit this part of the park but it is a very important and beautiful place in the park. And as I move through and begin, we’re in the midst of scripting and shooting segments. Some of the key focuses for our project, which we do with many park films, is we look to educate, facilitate and engage the public. And to do that, it sounds a little simple in this one little sound bite, but connecting hearts and minds, telling those stories in the way that people will resonate and connect with their own stories, whether it’s through their own experiences as Texans. And West Texas, we get an awful lot of people who come to us and say, who are coming more from Dallas and Austin, but also creating a sense of place, that’s particularly important to connect those folks to those stories on the landscape.
And I’ll leave you with this. Through education, we build awareness and personal connections to the stories which build curiosity and help people engage and discover and explore. I show this guy out here who’s hiking in the park. Actually, he’s closer to Lincoln National Forest, but that’s what, we hope that more people will not just think of us as a hiking park, which that’s great, but that they will come and they will explore many of our interpretive stories.