Laurance S. Rockefeller introduced a visionary plan to balance land protection and public access in a way that emphasized environmental stewardship through immersion in the natural landscape. A choreographed entry, trail network and modest interpretive center engage visitors in an experience unique among national park settings through its light touch, extractive approach, and transformative qualities. The project was gifted to the American public becoming the first within all National Parks to achieve LEED Platinum standard.
Laurance S. Rockefeller (LSR) has been associated with many well-known conservation efforts over his lifetime by initiating, organizing, and administering projects in such a way to ensure the public would ultimately benefit. He viewed nature as the essential ingredient in the full development of the individual. As a result, when he decided to grant the 1106-acre inholding in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) in 2001, Rockefeller insisted that he would implement the project himself as an expression of his belief that the quality of an individual’s experience in nature can be transformative and heighten their appreciation and understanding of stewardship and personal environmental responsibility. The finished project was turned over to the National Park Service in 2007 complete with an endowment for its upkeep and maintenance.
LSR had a specific vision for the property that balanced public enjoyment and interpretation of sensitive resources while serving as a model of environmental stewardship. The final concept has succeeded in reversing the effects of generations of human impact through the removal of existing development from the property, including 35 historic cabins and unnecessary roads and infrastructure. In their place is a network of carefully orchestrated trails providing remarkable environmental experiences through reclaimed native habitats and linking the interpretive center to Phelps Lake at the north.
GTNP attracts approximately 3 million annual visitors and like most highly visited landscapes, this one was in jeopardy of being loved - and visited - to death. At the outset of the planning process, LSR requested that the designers challenge the typical national park experience by changing the way in which a visitor experiences the landscape. The landscape architect responded by addressing the raw and emotive qualities of the landscape, stripping it of human overlay and returning it to its native condition. Parking and arrival areas, separated from the interpretive center, are on the site of previous disturbance from an existing corral. The interpretive center sits at the edge of a sagebrush meadow on the site of former ranch housing. All built structures are physically separated by topography and vegetation and connected by an interpretive trail system.
The design for the LSR Preserve captures the very essence of the park’s natural setting by stripping away all extraneous and unnecessary elements. The end result is a plan with less impact to the environment than that which existed before. The quarter-mile journey to the center requires that visitors first separate from their transportation and immediately commit to immersing themselves in the larger landscape. The Grand Teton, while visible in the background, is not the focus of the experience. In contrast to most national parks, the interpretive center is not the destination but simply a stop that illuminates the experience of being in nature through visual, auditory and sensory exhibits. Visitors leave the center calm and reflective, and ready to fully engage with the surroundings. Interpretive elements along the trail connecting the center and the lake are tactile, encouraging visitors to engage with the landscape by touching water, feeling leaf textures, climbing on rocks, listening to the wind, hearing an echo, watching wildlife, smelling native vegetation, and seeing reflection in the lake. Unlike most trails in national parks, this one is not organized to convey users quickly from one point to another, but rather it is choreographed to impact the senses and emotions of all who pass. A purposefully narrow and one-way routing system limits user congestion, facilitating immediate absorption with the surrounding environment. At the lake, overlook opportunities are set back from the water and located at appropriate distances so that human presence is secondary to the natural landscape.
The landscape architect studied the site and its seasonal qualities for over two years and worked directly with the client and design team to develop the story that would guide the master plan and site design for the Preserve. Site design elements such as the wetland walkway and waterfall deck were designed to give visitors unexpected perspectives and unique relationships to heighten awareness. The landscape architect was instrumental in siting the new structures, and facilitating the relocation and reuse of all existing buildings throughout the park and at the client’s new family compound. The landscape architect’s intimate knowledge of the site resulted in a trail layout and experience focused on expressing and communicating the essence of the land and the location.
The vision for the project - minimum impact on the land: maximum impact to the visitor - was the catalyst for all design choices. In a setting where public engagement with the environment is paramount, the concept allows visitors of all ages and abilities to slow down and utilize their senses and intuition to completely immerse themselves into nature. Since its official opening in June 2007, the LSR Preserve has inspired an overwhelmingly positive public response that is far beyond the Park’s expectations. An entry in the visitor log attests to the project’s impact on the community, and documents the heartfelt reactions to the entire experience. “Absolutely beautiful - a treat to the senses. I leave and will walk my path with broadened respect. Thank you!”
In a highly collaborative effort, the team of landscape architects, architects, engineers, and interpretive and resource specialists worked with the client for over five years to understand the site, explore design ideas and implement a plan that marries site access and experience with environmental stewardship. The result is an experience-based design that is a model of environmental stewardship within the National Park system.
The extractive process on which this project relies is unique because, rather than adding elements to the site, it requires that existing conditions tell the story. Instead of increasing parking and widening trails, it reduces both, signifying a need for visitors to thoughtfully ponder the overall objective of engaging fully in the natural landscape.
LSR encouraged the landscape architect to be disciplined yet contemplative in their approach to the project. The project was not conveyed to the National Park Service until after completion allowing the team to develop the plan focusing on environmental stewardship and visitor experience, not typical parking ratios and visitor standards.
Site design elements that distinguish this project include:
Over 30 structures were removed and relocated for reuse. Three miles of road asphalt were recycled for use on the entry road. Overhead utilities were removed, and a vehicular bridge was transformed into a pedestrian bridge. The result was a savings of 155.2 tons of demolition waste.
Seed was harvested from native plants and planted in reclamation areas. Boulders were collected for reuse on site overlooks and on the building. Potable water is extracted through an existing well and recharged through natural filtration. The project achieved a 96% reduction in water use, or an annual savings of 76,000 gallons. This is the first project in Wyoming and in the National Park Service to achieve a LEED Platinum Standard.
National Park Service
Carney Logan Burke Architects
Pioneer Environmental Services
Civil Engineer / Surveyor:
Rocky Mountain Institute
Interpretative, Signage and Exhibit Designer:
The Sibbett Group
David Nelson & Associates
Engineering Economics Inc.
GE Johnson Construction Company
Timber Frame / Wood Production:
Bike rack and water hydrant are custom fabrication
Boulders were harvested from site
Helical piers by Diamond Pier
Metal grating by McNichols
Parking lot paving is Gravelpave by Invisible Structures, Inc.