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FIU expert on national parks: Get out there!
Government-issued postcards, circa 1938

FIU expert on national parks: Get out there!

He teaches students about the history and politics of the National Park Service and encourages all of us to see some of the country’s most stunning natural landscapes.

April 26, 2024 at 3:30pm

Every generation inspires the next and sometimes in unexpected ways. It was decades ago that a pair of Honors College faculty fellows first offered a course called “The Everglades: from beginning to end?” It met every other week for a full day in Everglades National Park. A then-student-now-FIU-administrator took the class some 15 years ago and has since created a version inspired by it.

Tropical botanist Devon Graham and the late Peter Machonis, a linguist, co-taught the original, which involved hours of hiking, biking and canoeing through the marshland as a group. Students learned about the Everglades ecosystem and the politics surrounding its use and conservation in addition to consuming art and literature, including the seminal work on the subject, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “The River of Grass,” discussions of which took place in the middle of the wetlands.

“We had a great time,” remembers three-time alumnus Anthony Rionda, '09, MPA '11, JD '21, a South Florida native who says he had little interaction with the Everglades until enrolling in the class. Today, he serves as the associate vice president for the Division of Strategic Communications, Government and External Affairs while on the side teaching the Honors College course “Save our Parks: Environmental Law, Policy and Politics. It takes what Machonis and Graham did around the natural wonder that is the Everglades and expands to cover the National Park Service, founded in 1916.

With National Park Week continuing through April 28, we asked Rionda what he wants people to know about the federal system that oversees 63 parks, why we as a nation should celebrate this curated collection of remarkable places and how we as individuals can embrace the beauty of our varied American landscape.

What do you want students to get out of your class?
The class is really about understanding how we promote sustainable tourism, understanding the laws that protect the parks and understanding a history that hasn’t always been perfect.

It’s about a complicated system governing public land, like understanding the difference between a national forest and a national park and a national monument and a national seashore. [Many of those fall under the purview of the National Park Service, which oversees 429 national sites, administered by a variety of agencies.] Students learn about threats to the parks, which although very protected by law are impacted by climate change or by being ‘loved to death.’ [Witness the TikTok takeover.]

How many of the parks have you been to so far?
Twelve. I just went to Death Valley National Park for New Year’s. In Alaska, we went to Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali National Park. My wife almost killed me in Denali. We had to take a bus [the only way visitors are allowed beyond a specified point] and were on it for eight hours, round trip. But it's worth it! You see the mountain, and there’s a grizzly bear sitting four or five feet from you!

You like to remind folks that there are more than five dozen of these amazing places.
The problem is that people only go to the same few. There are 63 of them, so it’s not just Jackson Hole [Grand Teton National Park ] and Yellowstone and Yosemite [among the top-10 most visited].

There is such a breadth of beauty and natural landscape.
The tallest peak is in a national park [Denali]. The deepest lake is in a national park [Crater Lake in Oregon]. Acadia in Maine features beautiful changing scenery against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. In South Carolina, you have swamp [Congaree]. Mesa Verde shows human existence in the Southwest 800 years ago. Zion in Utah [that state is home to what are considered by many to be the five best national parks] has incredible sandstone formations. Arches, also in Utah, has over 2,000 natural stone arches. And then you have the scenic ones that no one goes to, such as Canyonlands, in Utah, the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

So what do you tell people to get them out there?
Going to these parks is big because if you go there and you experience them, you become more respectful, and you also want to protect them.


Bryce Canyon National Park



National parks are congressionally designated protected areas operated by the National Park Service. There are 63 national parks across the country, including in two U.S. territories (American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

The National Park Service administers a grand total of 429 national sites, which includes national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House.

Florida has three national parks: Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park.

Yellowstone was the country's first national park, receiving the designation in 1872.

California is the state with the most national parks — nine!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is the most visited, boasting more than 13 million visitors in 2023.

The largest U.S. national park is the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska. The second- and third-largest U.S. national parks are Gates of the Arctic and Denali, both of which are also in Alaska.

In 2020, New River Gorge in West Virginia became the newest national park.

Yosemite National Park