The George W. Bush Presidential Center sits on a restored 14-acre prairie in the middle of Dallas. As the driving force behind that park, former first lady Laura Bush spoke with The Strategist podcast about her passion for conservation. Below is an excerpt of her conversation with Strategerist host Andrew Kaufmann and the Bush Institute’s Lindsey Knutson.
Question: Where did your love of conservation come from?
Bush: As an only child growing up in West Texas, my love for our state’s natural landscapes started early and came from my mother, Jenna Welch, who if she was not reading, could be found outside. My mother was a knowledgeable self-taught naturalist who remembered the name of every wildflower and was passionate about birds.
For as far back as I can remember, on spectacular summer nights, Mother would grab a blanket and we would go outside to lie on the ground and gaze at the sky. And as we lay together on the hard grass, she would say, “Look up, Laura, look up.”
And it was then, as a bright-eyed girl, that I began to look up as to not miss the beauty of the world around me.
Q: You have shared a love of national parks with childhood friends from Midland ever since you turned 40. What are your memories of that experience?
Bush: We started our tradition of hiking every summer with a trip to the Grand Canyon, where we floated on the Colorado River and then hiked out at the South Rim. We loved that trip so much that we decided to do it again years later when we lived at the White House. On that second trip, all of us took our daughters. The girls hiked out in about four hours and the old mothers barely made it out in seven!
During those years at the White House, I hiked in a national park every year with the same childhood friends. We’ve hiked Denali in Alaska, Acadia in Maine, and Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And I’m glad we did that one then — Yosemite is a very difficult hike; there are some 12-mile days, and at our age, we wouldn’t make it! We do still go on a trip each summer — last summer we floated and hiked around the Salmon River in Idaho.
Q: Why is it so important that we protect our oceans, such as the national marine monument President Bush designated in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?
Bush: I got to visit Papahānaumokuākea with some friends. The Laysan albatross nests on the ground there, and as we walked around, we saw some of their dead chicks. When we opened them up, we learned that their parents, who had been fishing for squid on top of the ocean, hadn’t come back with squid. They had come back with plastic bottle caps, toothbrushes and plastic toys, and fed that to their babies. This was a reminder that even in the most remote parts of the ocean, there is litter and trash in the water. Whatever we throw out washes down to the river and then washes out to sea. It’s important for us to try to conserve our beautiful world.
Q: Your Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, is another example of your interest in conservation.
Bush: George and I wanted to restore the native prairie back to how it would have looked decades ago before it was farmed. So, each year, we plowed up the non-native grass and replated with seeds from the remnants of the intact prairie. So far, we probably have a little over a hundred acres of native prairie. And we’ve noticed the difference it makes — we’ve seen the return of quail, and we now have our own native seed.
George likes to ride his mountain bikes on the trails he built around the ranch. Each year, he hosts wounded warriors for the Bush Institute’s W100 bike ride.
Q: You have this idea of bringing Texas back to nature, and have founded Texan by Nature. Can you tell us about that idea?
Bush: When George and I moved back to Texas from Washington, D.C., I helped found Texan by Nature with a group of friends and committed conservationists.
Our goal is to demonstrate that our prosperity and quality of life are dependent on our natural resources. Texan by Nature amplifies and accelerates projects across Texas that benefit our people, prosperity and our natural resources. And we do this through our Conservation Wrangler Program, the Texan by Nature Certification Program, and our Symposia Series. With each of these programs, we bring partners together to build on the vision of innovative Texans.
One of our first efforts was to encourage people to plant native landscapes in their church grounds, school yards, business campuses and even their own backyards. We especially wanted them to plant the native antelope horn milkweed that Monarch butterflies depend on to lay their cocoons as they migrate toward Canada for the summer or to Mexico for the winter. It’s important that we have enough native plants for the Monarch butterfly. They fly in successive generations and only live about nine days. They need a safe native place to put their cocoon for the next generation.
Thankfully, we’ve had many corporations join our efforts and become Texan by Nature.
Q: As we wrap up here, which national parks should parents take their children to? Which should we go to?
Bush: Go to your closest national park. And find out about national historic sites that are in your neighborhoods. They also are part of the national park system. Take your children to those closest to you and then give them the opportunity to visit others as they grow up.