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Film Inspires Students to Connect With U.S. Parks

With heavy packs and tired feet, Lucas Suina and Ramon Baros hiked miles through the backcountry's scrub and ponderosa pine. They started to wonder if they'd ever reach their destination.

Then, rounding a corner, Painted Cave came into view.

High on the sandstone cliff was a gallery of red, black and white pictographs and handprints put there hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of the two American Indian teenagers, who spent the summer as interns at Bandelier National Monument.

"It's pretty wild," the 18-year-old Suina said. "If you went up there and touched them, you'd be touching the same spot your ancestor was touching. It's definitely spiritual."

Suina and Baros were among a handful of teenagers from nearby pueblos who spent weeks exploring Bandelier's backcountry and educating visitors about the northern New Mexico monument as part of a new program funded by the National Park Foundation and its partners.

Nearly three dozen National Park Service sites used foundation grants to develop stronger bonds with surrounding communities.

The grants were inspired by filmmaker Ken Burns' new documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The film centers on people from all walks of life who helped create and protect the parks.

"We wanted to create a grant program that helped bring that real diversity and connection back to the parks," said Mark Shields, spokesman for the National Park Foundation.

Denali National Park and Preserve reached out to Alaska native youth for a digital storytelling project about their experience deep in the park's backcountry.

Children from low-income families in Salem, Mass., learned about maritime history aboard a schooner.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Associated Press the foundation's $500,000 investment will help open a new world for many who might otherwise never visit a national park.

"These programs are vital if America is going to address the growing crisis in this country of children growing up indoors with little connection to nature and to our country's rich historical and cultural heritage," he said.

Bandelier hired five interns from the surrounding pueblos of Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo and Santa Clara.

The teens spent three weeks learning about Bandelier and the National Park Service, then began interacting with visitors.

Lynne Dominy, chief of interpretation at Bandelier, said she came up with the idea for the summer program after hearing from tribal leaders who were concerned that pueblo youth had no connection to their heritage.

Bandelier's history dates back more than 10,000 years when nomadic hunters roamed the area. More permanent settlements began to pop up around 1150 but by 1550, Bandelier's inhabitants moved from the sandstone cliffs to pueblos along the Rio Grande.

Besides educating visitors about bears and other wildlife, Dominy said the interns' presence has "reaffirmed for park visitors that the pueblo people are still here and an important part of this heritage."

Baros, a high school senior from San Ildefonso, said he hardly remembered Bandelier from the field trips he took as a young boy. But after three months, Baros discovered his roots.

"I feel like I'm at home, I'm close to my people," he said. "I'm here working and it feels like I'm here working for them."

In Alaska, eight students learned to collect sound and shoot video before heading into Denali's wilderness.

They even interviewed Burns during his visit to Anchorage in June, said Christie Anastasia, coordinator of Denali's science and learning center.

In camp, the students got a special visit from an elderly Athabaskan couple who talked about their experiences growing up native. The children also hiked to an archaeological dig where college students were uncovering arrowheads and bone material.

"I don't think anyone can have that kind of experience with a national park and not have it change their life," Anastasia said.

In Massachusetts, children from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem learned to sail and heard stories about people who were involved in maritime trade during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Salem was once one of the nation's most important ports, said Sheila Cooke-Kayser, chief of interpretation and education at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

She said many children who participated in this summer's program used to walk by the wharves every day without knowing their significance.

Salazar said the biggest challenge in connecting people to the sites is showing them how easy and inexpensive a trip to a national park can be.

"I am convinced that once children have been enchanted by the Grand Canyon or inspired by the Statue of Liberty, they will return to our national parks again and again throughout their lives," he said. "We just have to let them know the door is open and welcome them in."