A veteran’s legacy gives all veterans and Gold Star Families free, lifetime access to national parks

Emily Henkel vividly remembers the first time her late fiancé, Alexander Lofgren, found peace in the outdoors. They had gone camping at one of her favorite spots in Prescott, Arizona. Lying in a hammock, staring up at the sky amid ponderosa pines, she spotted a tear rolling down his cheek.

“I was like, ‘Are you all right?… Is something wrong?’ ” she recalled. It was early in their relationship, and they were still learning about each other. “He expressed that this was just the most at peace he had been in a really long time.”

Lofgren served four years in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat engineer before being honorably medically discharged. Henkel said he was already on a healing journey when they met years later, but two things fueled him further: experiencing nature and helping fellow veterans as a congressional aide for Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Veterans Day is a free entry day for all visitors to America’s national parks, but starting this Veterans Day, a new law in Lofgren’s name will bridge his passions and grant all veterans and Gold Star Families free lifetime access to national parks and public lands.

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Alexander Lofgren took in all the beauty of Utah's Valley of the Gods in 2020.

Free parks for life

“We have a sacred obligation to America’s veterans,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose dad served during the Vietnam War, said in a statement. “This new lifetime pass is a small demonstration of our nation’s gratitude and support for those who have selflessly served in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

To obtain a pass, veterans may present a Department of Defense ID Card, Veteran Health ID, Veteran ID Card, or state-issued U.S. driver’s license or ID card with a veteran’s designation at participating locations. Gold Star Families, who’ve lost an immediate family member in the line of service, may self-certify their identities with a voucher. Passes may also be ordered online, but there is a $10 shipping fee for online orders.

The pass covers entry fees for the pass holder as well as companions in the same private car or three other adults, where per-person fees are charged.

“This is going to be so impactful for so many people because I know how much it was for Alex,” Henkel said.

Finding purpose after loss

Tucson residents Alexander Lofgren, 32, and Emily Henkel, 27, were found on a steep ledge in Death Valley National Park on April 8, 2021, after the Inyo County Sheriff's Office received a report that the couple was missing. Lofgren was pronounced dead and Henkel was hospitalized after a search and rescue team removed them from the ledge on April 9, 2021.

Lofgren died last year in an accident at Death Valley National Park, which Henkel opens about in a new Goal Zero film called “Power Moves: Finding Purpose.” In it, she describes how they set out looking for help after her car got two flat tires on a remote road, how Lofgren lost his grip and fell while looking for a way forward, how she fell and broke her ankle trying to get to him as fast as she could, and how she heard his last breaths, all days before their rescue.

“Realistically, my search for some sort of purpose started in the canyon because I had made it without thinking that I ever could make it without Alex,” Henkel said. “I knew there was a reason why I was still alive.”

She found that reason in legislation expanding veteran and Gold Star Family access to national parks, which received wide, bipartisan support in both houses of Congress before being rolled up into the National Defense Authorization Act last year.

“There’s nothing better, nothing more fitting because of his passion for veterans and his passion for helping those that need it most,” Henkel said. “It’s his way of continuing to make a difference, the difference that he was supposed to continue to make.”

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Continuing to serve

In addition to offering space for healing, the National Park Service hires a lot of veterans, who make up more than a fifth of their employees, and many of the system’s 423 sites commemorate the service and sacrifices of veterans and the military.

Pamela Mault says one of her greatest honors was working on the Flight 93 National Memorial honoring Sept. 11 victims who thwarted an attack on Washington.

“Right now, I take care of the National Mall, which you know has the Vietnam, Korean, WWI, WWII (memorials),” said Pamela Mault, an Air Force veteran and contracting specialist with the Denver Service Center, the park service’s hub for infrastructure projects. “I don’t think I’ve once been out there and not been emotional, shed a tear. It’s an honor to help keep their names and help tell those stories … to keep them recognized throughout history.” 

She sees her work as a continuation of service.

Just like veterans helped protect the country, Mault said, “As the National Park Service, we work to preserve it. We wear uniforms. We live and work together in remote areas. And we both care deeply about our mission.”

Mault comes from a big military and parks family. Her dad, two brothers and two sisters are also veterans.

“Growing up, my family would take trips cross country, along the way going from national park to national park,” she said. “I’ve been to over 100 parks.” 

Pamela Mault's love for national parks began as a child when her family would travel across the country visiting parks like Yosemite.

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Life-changing benefits

Navy veteran Ana Cholo didn’t grow up hiking, camping, or exploring the outdoors with her parents, but when she discovered the parks in her 30s, she said it was life-changing.

“When things got rough for me, I found that they were a place of healing,” she said. “Times when life’s been hard, I’ve been able to just rely on this gift we have here in our country of being able to just go outside and take a hike, go on a bike ride. If you want a little bit more adrenaline, that’s there too. You could climb. You could go river rafting. You could also just sit and breathe and enjoy the beauty and solitude that many of our parks have to offer.”

Ana Cholo hikes on San Miguel Island in Channel Islands National Park.

Now a park service spokesperson for the Pacific West region, Cholo is thrilled that all veterans and Gold Star Families will be able to get free lifetime passes instead of the previous annual passes that expired each year.

“Sometimes in just having to deal with the hassle of renewing something, it could turn people off, and we want our veterans to enjoy the benefits of being in parks,” she said. “I really think that the mental health benefits, the physical benefits of being in parks is critical, especially for veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country.”

A lasting legacy

Henkel knows the kind of healing Lofgren experienced takes time.

“I know it’s not as simple as like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go with my family to a park, and then my life’s gonna be changed,” Henkel said. “But I’ve heard enough stories to know that it is already effective. It’s already helping change some lives, and I’m very eager to see where it can go from here.”

She wasn’t sure she would ever enjoy parks the same way after Lofgren’s death.

“To my very pleasant surprise, I have never felt closer to him than I felt back out there,” she said. “It is just like a breath of fresh air, a kind of calming that I don’t quite experience here or really anywhere that’s not outdoors.”

“He is there,” she added. “And especially with the passing of this bill, he is literally in every park no matter where I go, no matter where anyone is. He is in every single national park, and he will be there forever, which is the coolest thing.” 

Emily Henkel holds a bouquet of wildflowers Alexander Lofgren gathered for her on their first camping trip in Prescott, Arizona. He gathered wildflowers for her wherever they went.

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