The author’s three year old son races across the sandstone at Mesa de Cuba badlands.

Public Lands to the Rescue for this Parent of a Toddler

Mike Sullivan is a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) on issues related to public lands and energy. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife, Annie Olson, and his son, Finn.

My three year old son scrambles up sandstone and shale in the Mesa de Cuba badlands. White lunar mounds of earth, striped with gray and rust as far as his eyes can see. I can make out the juniper clumps along arroyos and the red tops of mesas at the horizon, think about how this landscape was the bottom of an ocean once. I can consider what it will become, long after humankind is gone. But Finn has summit fever. When he reaches the top of a mound, he waves his arms in triumph and smiles as big as the sky.

The desert in this part of New Mexico hides vast expanses of rock formations sculpted by wind and water into hoodoos, precarious boulders and tent rocks. You won’t notice from the road, but petrified wood, or “petra-wood” as my son calls it, fills the washes. We try to tell him the whitest rocks are dinosaur bones and he will not have it. “Petra-wood,” he identifies.

I often wonder what Finn comprehends of the pandemic. An adult brain uses experience and memory to organize and understand situations. Toddlers do not have this ability. He knows everything changed. He knows he can’t go to museums, libraries, preschool or playgrounds anymore. This is a significant loss for a curious child as well as the parents who rely on them for mental stimulation and physical exertion.

Parenting a toddler in a pandemic can feel like walking along a cliff in a blindfold. With daily struggles, tantrums, and boredom, one misstep can send you reeling. This is why we’ve spent nearly every weekend of the pandemic exploring our public lands in New Mexico and coming to understand that every landscape has something to teach us.

Today a storm swept over us in the badlands. Finn learned what rain smells like, and how to count the time between a burst of lightning and clap of thunder. We watched the clay-rich soil under our feet turn to a skating rink and squealed when we slid in mud. The color of the ground changed, the shapes of the hoodoos changed, and the land shifted with erosion as it has done for millions of years. Today, we were fortunate to see it for ourselves.


So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this summer. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.

Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at for guidelines.



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National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

The National Wildlife Federation public lands program advocates for our public lands and waters, wildlife and the right of every American to enjoy them.