Nature Offers Solace in Times of Crisis

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 11, 2002 (ENS) - Americans have always turned to nature for peace and solace during trying times. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Americans have sought out the natural beauty of the nation's public lands and private preserves, finding in green trees, bird songs and sunsets a refuge from the fear and uncertainty that terrorism brought to the United States.

September 11

A view of the Statue of Liberty as seen from the water on the morning of September 11, 2001 with the World Trade Center towers in the New York Skyline. (All photos courtesy National Park Service)
Last September 11, some national parks and historic sites were temporarily closed after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington DC. Security concerns forced closures of sites around New York City and San Francisco, California, along with government offices across the nation.

But most sites reopened within a day or two, opening their doors to a shaken public. The nation's natural areas offered a welcome respite from the blanketing, 24 hour coverage of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

Natural Areas Draw Stunned Visitors

Shenandoah National Park, just a few hours drive from downtown Washington DC in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, saw an influx of people from the nation's capitol region, beginning on the very day of the attacks. Tracy Thetford, lead forestry technician at Shenandoah, said the park was originally notified that all national parks in the Northeast region were supposed to shut down.


A mountaintop view of Shenandoah National Park and its mountains receding in the distance.
"I think it was mostly for safety and security of government offices," Thetford said in an April 2002 interview with a National Park Service (NPS) historian. "Nobody knew what was going on next or…what planes were going where, what other possible terrorist attacks might happen where."

But Shenandoah National Park decided to stay open "as a sanctuary for a place for people to go to," Thetford added.

"Later on in the day, I called down to our employees that are working in the entrance station to find out if there's been an influx of people into the park," she said. "And there were groups of people who actually were leaving Washington, DC and coming - and just drove out of the city. And they came to Shenandoah and decided to come into the park and just either drive or walk. But they were telling our folks at the entrance stations that, yeah, they just needed to get away."

By the following weekend, Shenandoah had many additional visitors, most of whom "wanted to get away from the TV," Thetford said. "People just wanted to get out of the city, get to nature, get away from the TV."

Mt. Rainier

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state saw visitation drop for the first couple of months following September 11.
Other areas, such as Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington state, saw visitation drop throughout September 2001, then begin to rise again in October.

"We started picking back up during our normal winter season," said Jill Hawk, chief ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park.

At Yosemite National Park in California, visitors joined park employees on September 14, 2001, to honor President George W. Bush's request for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. Those attending signed a banner that was sent to Federal Hall in New York City to express support for New Yorkers involved in the tragedy.

At California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which includes Alcatraz Island, Fort Point National Historic Site, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Presidio of San Francisco, several areas were closed on the morning of September 11 for security reasons. But natural areas, beaches and trails, including Muir Woods, were left open, and all park areas were reopened on September 12.

Golden Gate

A view from the Marin Headlands of the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco Bay and the city of San Francisco in the background.
Rich Weideman, who heads the office of public affairs and special events at GGNRA, said that all day on September 11, his office was getting calls from people who wanted to know whether they were open.

"People were going out that day, going for walks, reflecting on what was going on," Weideman said in an interview with an NPS historian. Weideman said it seemed that there were more visitors to park areas than usual for a weekday, as many offices had shut down after hearing of the terrorist attacks.

"It was odd; it wasn't like a weekend, and it certainly didn't have the feeling of a weekend or a federal holiday," Weideman said. "It wasn't like people going out bike riding and jogging. A lot more people were just walking, and families and things like that."

Many area residents and visitors have found solace on GGNRA's trails, beaches and ocean vistas since September 11, Weideman noted. In contrast, national and international visitation to Alcatraz Island - site of a former high security prison - dropped significantly after September 11, 2001 and remained at low levels until March 2002.

New Yorkers Find Solace in Nature

At Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA), which includes natural and historic areas in and around New York Harbor, many areas remained off limits to the public for months, largely because they were coopted by emergency personnel. A triage center for treating the wounded was set up on Ellis Island, and NPS staff were soon joined by dozens of emergency medical technicians, paramedics and emergency room physicians brought by boat from area towns and hospitals.


The approach to the air strip at Floyd Bennett Field in Gateway National Recreation Area crosses acres of wetlands. (Photo by Don Riepe)
Floyd Bennett Field was used as a central staging area by the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A few days after September 11, the American Red Cross relocated their food preparation center to a hangar on the field and prepared 10,000 meals a day for relief workers at peak operation. About 150 people lived in the hangar during this operation.

The natural areas of GNRA offered another sort of refuge. Since September 11, the NPS has collected the thoughts and memories of visitors to Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Sandy Hook and other NPS units in the New York City area, offering insight into what these areas meant to some of the people most closely affected by the terrorist attacks.

"While for most of my life I have taken this country and all of its beauty for granted," wrote one New York resident, "after 9/11 the intense love for all that I know, the bridge I travel over, the water I swim in, this wonderful park, became more beautiful and sacred to me."

"I love this country, and I love this park," the visitor added. I will never take it for granted anymore."

"This National Park - Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge - is peaceful, beautiful, and a place to find solace," said another New Yorker, while a third called Jamaica Bay "a refuge from the rat race."


Candlelight vigil at Fort Tilden, Gateway National Recreation Area on September 23, 2001. (Photo by Don Riepe)
On September 23, 2001, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil at Fort Tilden, located near the Brooklyn community of Rockaway, home to many of the firefighters and police who were lost when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

Across the bay, at the Sandy Hook unit in New Jersey, one visitor called the park "a great place to relax and pray for all mankind."

"It's wonderful to know that in spite of everything - there are still places like this that we can come to and be reminded that there are beautiful places and that we are truly blessed," added another New Jersey visitor.

Park Service Creates Memorial Website

These and other comments can be found on a new National Park Service website, "9/11/01: The Meaning of National Parks in Times of Crisis" ( The site offers memories of the effects of September 11 on park employees and visitors, and also invites virtual visitors to comment on their current reflections about the value of national parks in their lives.

"The power of parks and their ability to inspire talking, learning and healing has always been important," noted NPS director Fran Mainella. "Parks, in all their variety, represent cherished special pieces of this nation's shared heritage. The parks were set aside so that succeeding generations could experience these places in much the same way we have experienced them."

twin towers

National parks provide a natural refuge for humans and wildlife. Here, snow geese take flight at sunrise in Jamaica Bay, Gateway National Recreation Area, before the events of September 11th. (Photo by Don Riepe)
The design and creation of the online exhibit is made possible through a grant from The National Park Foundation (NPF) to the Recovery and Remembrance Fund.

"As we all continue to deal with our grief from the tragedy of September 11 in different ways, it is helpful to remember that National Parks can serve as special places for solitude, reflection and comfort," said Jim Maddy, president of the NPF. "Now more than ever, National Parks have a special role to play in our lives."

One of the site's featured parks is Federal Hall National Memorial in lower Manhattan, which on September 11, 2001 served as a safe haven for some 250 people fleeing from the falling debris and choking dust caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"These parks and their people, the rangers, gardeners, police, secretaries, and more, will always carry the memory of September 11," Mainella said. "Our visitors, at parks both near and far have shared their ideas of why and how they value the parks and the people who serve them."

On Veteran's Day in November, 2001, the national parks and many other public lands across the nation waived their visitor fees to encourage people to find comfort in natural areas.


The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were closed for security reasons on September 11th. The islands were not reopened to the public until December 20, 2001.
"Thousands of parks, historic sites and recreational areas from coast to coast waived entrance fees to encourage visitors to enjoy these special places as part of a nationwide demonstration of solidarity," Mainella noted.

The parks were also free on August 25, 2002, National Park Service Founder's Day. A call to the Interior Department today revealed that no such system wide fee waiver was in effect today.

But other, private natural areas were free today. The National Audubon Society (NAS) opened the doors of its sanctuaries and nature centers across the nation to members of the public seeking peace and solitude.

"Some weeks ago, many of our centers and sanctuaries began to plan a day remembrance for September 11th," said NAS president John Flicker. "We agreed that this was entirely appropriate, and decided to offer this opportunity at all our Sanctuaries and Centers. Spending time out of doors, in nature, has a healing effect."

Memorial Tree Groves Planned

On future anniversaries, survivors of the September 11 tragedies may be able to find solace within nature even closer to home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is issuing $933,000 in federal grants to develop living memorials in recognition of the losses that occurred during terrorist attacks in New York City, southwest Pennsylvania and the Washington DC metropolitan area.

color guard

Rangers on horseback provide a color guard for the September 14, 2001 National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at Yosemite National Park.
"This week, as we all take time to reflect and honor the courage of so many, we also pay tribute to the victims, their families and communities who have suffered from these tragedies," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "These living memorials, through community involvement and tree plantings, will provide a long lasting tribute to honor the heroes of September 11."

Municipalities and community groups in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC will receive 12 federal cost share grants ranging from $13,000 to $236,000 to establish public memorial tree groves and gardens. All of the memorial sites announced Tuesday will be open to the public by September 30, 2003.

In Virginia, the Forest Service is working with officials from the Pentagon, American Forests and Arlington County on developing additional memorial sites. More information about the "Living Memorials Project" is available online at:

Even after this first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, people may need the comfort of nature to balance the fear prompted by the ongoing threat of terrorism and other international concerns, noted Craig Tufts, chief naturalist with the U.S. conservation group National Wildlife Federation.


The shoreline at Fort Wadsworth, in Gateway National Recreation Area near New York City. (Photo by Brian Feeney)
"At times when anxiety is high, taking a moment to reconnect with nature can provide a solace unmatched by any man made escape," Tufts said.

"As human beings we intuitively know that the natural world can feed our soul, by simply listening to the sound of water as it ripples down a creek bed or rushes against the shore, lifting our eyes to behold the serenity and stability of an aging tree, feeling the wind in our face, watching a butterfly flit from flower to flower," Tufts added. "Immersion in nature's wonders can be the best distraction from the reality of our pain and angst about the future."