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GARDINER — There I was, my headlamp shining down on the laptop keyboard, frantically trying to read my scribbled notes in the dark as I tapped out a few paragraphs to sum up speeches by dignitaries like the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and Teddy Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson Teddy Roosevelt V.

Then I stood up and my boots were on the wrong feet because I put them on in the dark.

As the entertainment reporter here at The Gazette, I get to cover a lot of concerts, plays and art openings. It was a privilege to wait out the two-hour rain delay last month to see Ziggy Marley headline Magic City Blues at midnight and to interview Sherman Alexie, one of my all-time favorite authors, who shocked a few folks when he spoke at Rocky Mountain College in 2014.

But last week in Gardiner, covering An Evening at the Arch, the celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, topped them all. 

Because John Prine and Emmylou Harris were headlining the event, I got this gig. Plus, outdoors editor Brett French, who does an excellent job covering Yellowstone, was on vacation.

Prine’s voice is bruised and gravelly, but he brought so much sincerity to his performance of one of his signature songs, “Paradise,” about losing a natural place Prine loved as a kid in his dad’s native West Kentucky. It set the tone for the rest of the evening where passion for the parks ran deep.

When Harris and a stage filled with stellar musicians, including Rodney Crowell, led a singalong to Woody Guthrie’s ballad, “This Land is Your Land,” I looked around and saw wide smiles and a few watery eyes as people shouted out the words to a song many of us learned in elementary school.

The words fit the evening perfectly because that’s the message NPS director Jonathan Jarvis conveyed earlier during a press conference — apathy can kill the parks so we need everybody to feel ownership of public lands.

I met a new generation of urban park-goers that afternoon and the moment was as important to the celebration as hearing Prine sing.

Dozens of youth members of Groundwork USA who had just wrapped a weeklong stint in Yellowstone were as excited about doing trail work in the hot sun as I was about seeing Old Faithful the first time.

These inner-city teenagers didn't get the experience of being loaded in the family van for summer vacations visiting national parks.

They were thrilled to spend a week in Yellowstone National Park, even though it meant doing manual labor for free.

Crew leader Bailey Werner, 21, from Somerville, Mass., and 18-year-old crew leader Candi Alva, from Elizabeth, N.J., talked about working in paradise.

“It’s so different here than where we’re from,” Alva said. “It’s beautiful.”

The Groundwork program aims to bridge the diversity gap between conservation and urban youth. Their website makes a good point referencing the fact that 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas so it's important to bridge the gap between urban residents and public lands.

“Lower-income youth and youth of color, in particular, often don’t know many people who work in or visit public lands. And when they do venture into national parks and wildlife refuges, they don’t often find many people who look like them," Groundwork's website states.

Jarvis noted earlier that the NPS, which some say is seriously underfunded, exists at the “will of the people.”

“We need to be supported by all Americans. It isn’t about raw numbers, it is about whether we are relevant to all,” Jarvis said. “The visitors we see in the national parks are not reflective of the demographic of our country.”

If it weren't for the Groundwork crew, who also got to see the Evening at the Arch concert, there were almost no people of color in the crowd last week under the Roosevelt Arch.

The NPS spent $1 million over the last year to research how to reach millennials and plans are to spend a similar amount in 2017.

I agree that the NPS has to keep working to attract millennials to visit the parks so they can support funding of them.

A program as simple as giving fourth-graders a free pass to allow them and their families to visit national parks seems like a good start to diversifying park visitors. I also like Groundwork's approach fostering appreciation for wild places for inner-city kids.

It's a lesson many of us learned growing up in Montana. It's time to pass it on.


Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.