The Open Space of Democracy

This Land is Our Land

Public lands owned by every American comprise 640 million acres, or about one third of the country. They include treasured national parks, places of solace and inspiration like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, Gettysburg, and the Statue of Liberty. They are the largest intact habitats for wildlife and the watersheds provide drinking water to 75 million people.

This shared inheritance now faces acute threats.

Never before have America’s public lands faced such an uncertain future. In the years ahead, our shared inheritance will be under assault in the courts and in the Congress in ways we can scarcely imagine.

The Open Space of Democracy

Focused on America’s public lands as a bulwark against environmental crisis and as an embodiment of a democratic ideal, The Open Space of Democracy aims to (1) cultivate and amplify a cohort of new and diverse voices and compelling narratives, and (2) unify and inspire large-scale collective action in defense of our shared inheritance.

America's Public Lands

The Role of Story

The national elections of 2016 were a clash between starkly different visions of America, presented in radically different ways. On one hand, Americans were shown a set of policy proposals for continued incremental progress on restoring equality, strengthening the social safety net, stabilizing the shaky international order, and addressing ever worsening climate damage. On the other hand, citizens heard a story of malaise, corruption, fear, and blame that could only be addressed by a strongman leader. The power of story over policy, story even over truth, was revealed when the voters handed a narrow, but ultimately sweeping victory to the purveyors of fear.

The Power of New Narratives

The Open Space of Democracy aims to create and amplify the stories needed to guide, inspire and discipline large-scale collective action to rebuild our democracy and restore and protect a whole and living earth. In the face of mounting division and fear, America’s public lands provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to come together around a hopeful vision of who we are and who we wish to become as a country and as a people.

“The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Our power lies in our love of our homelands.” - Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy

Background and Context

In 2016, after armed militants seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, the Grand Canyon Trust launched a pilot program, 'Intercessions on Land', to convene land and policy experts, legal scholars, conservationists, artists, writers, theologians, scientists, and indigenous leaders to craft a new narrative about the importance of public lands in a 21st Century climate destabilized world.

Key participants included some of the most visible, influential and powerfully inspirational public lands, conservation and spiritual leaders of our time: Terry Tempest Williams, Jim Enote, Bill Hedden, Mark Udall, Maggie Fox, Caroline Casey, Kevin Fedarko, Charles Wilkinson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Chip Blake and more.

There were many tangible and exciting outcomes as a result of the gatherings, such as: the purchase of oil and gas leases by Terry Tempest and Brooke Williams; the formation of new and unusual alliances; multiple op-eds and articles; a framework for the project’s continuance; and over one hundred evocative video interviews detailing the importance of public lands (see link below). Now, we hope to achieve a qualitatively new scale and level of visibility in 2017.

Photo credit: Tim Peterson

Our Work

Building on the Grand Canyon Trust ‘Intercessions on Land’ series, and galvanized by new threats to America’s public lands, The Open Space of Democracy will move into high gear to mobilize a powerful group - including some existing and some new members - to engage the public in connecting with and activating to protect public lands, and through this process, our shared ideals and our democracy.


The Open Space of Democracy aims to play a leading role in reaffirming our shared democratic values by creating a cultural connection to our shared public lands.


We will achieve this mission by a) building an alliance of compelling advocates for public lands and b) unifying and amplifying their individual and shared narratives to inspire large-scale collective action in defense of our shared inheritance.

The Alliance: Members of the alliance will span the widest workable spectrum of political and cultural perspectives and will be chosen either because they hold crucial knowledge and stories, or because they are trusted thought leaders with existing communications channels to some significant segment of society. All members will commit to bringing their voices, networks, and other assets to the project. In 2017 - 2018, we aim to convene three four-day alliance gatherings on public lands. Gatherings will include open format sessions that allow for organic creation and collaboration, as well as facilitated sessions related to shaping visions for the future of our public lands. Between gatherings, we plan to support and/or host member-led events (installations, readings, immersive experiences, etc.), and will and track and share progress of these efforts through our customized platform (see below).

The Narratives: Our work with the alliance will incorporate a core communications team focused on constructing messages with broad appeal from the discussions of the alliance. The communications team will work individually with members to select the best channels and design the most effective messages for their audiences, while assuring that messages are coordinated and mutually reinforcing to the overarching focus on connecting to and/or protecting our shared inheritance. We will also reach beyond the alliance to others with compelling messages to capture and disseminate their stories through the most effective available channels.

In addition, our core team will develop a customized in-house messaging platform to disseminate branded messages, and also to serve as a publicly available interface of materials that alliance members and others can link to in their social networks.


“We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction. We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.” - Thomas Berry

Reach and expected impact will be determined in collaboration with our communications and content strategy team. Based on the reach of Intercessions participants, we anticipate reach to and engagement of at least 30 million Americans.

Our Team

Sarah Hedden: Sarah Hedden was born in the Utah desert and raised in a climate of aridity and splendor. The lessons she learned in this distinctive landscape have informed her sense of urgency, wonder, and devotion. As an architectural designer, curator, aesthete, and advocate of voice, Sarah’s work is born out of her own search for stillness in a loud and unsettled world. She joined Grand Canyon Trust in 2016 to help formulate a new vision for our American Public Lands.

Cora Neumann: Open Space Alliance: For nearly 20 years, Cora has collaborated with leaders in over 40 countries on strategies to improve the lives of women and families. Cora is founder of RESET and the Global First Ladies Alliance, and has served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State. She has worked for the RAND Corporation, the Bush Institute, Care.com, the Clinton Global Initiative, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations.

Bill Hedden: Bill Hedden is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Under his leadership, the Trust has helped clean up emissions from the region’s coal-fired power plants and remove radioactive wastes from the bank of the Colorado River. Hedden developed a leading program for reducing grazing damage on public lands, including purchasing two ranches covering 850,000 acres on the Grand Canyon’s north rim.

Terry Tempest Williams: Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist, and activist. Williams' writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah and its Mormon culture. Known for her impassioned and lyrical prose, she is author of the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert; and The Open Space of Democracy. Her most recent book is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, published in June, 2016, to coincide with and honor the centennial of the National Park Service.

Maggie Fox: Maggie Fox is the former president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project. Along with former Vice President Al Gore, she has trained hundreds of climate educators from around the world. Formerly a deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, Maggie has consulted with a number of organizations and foundations on their energy and climate campaigns, including the UN Foundation, the Western Conservation Foundation, and the Better World Fund. She was the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment's 2010 Woman of the Year.


Cora Neumann: cora@resetlead.com



“Living in place—the notion has been around for decades and usually been dismissed as provincial, backward, dull and possibly reactionary. But new dynamics are at work. The mobility that has characterized American life is coming to a close. As Americans begin to stay put, it may give us the first opening in over a century to give participatory democracy another try.” - Gary Snyder, A Place in Space

Created By
Cora Neumann


Created with images by HarshLight - "Grand Canyon National Park" • kasabubu - "yellowstone national park wyoming usa" • PDPhotos - "mormon row barn wyoming national park" • Paul Fundenburg - "Grand Canyon" • tpsdave - "yellowstone national park wyoming landscape" • skeeze - "arch stone night" • Unsplash - "stone arch geology formation" • Ronile - "statue of liberty new york ny" • KeYang - "horseshoe bend american landscape curve" • tpsdave - "coyote animal wildlife" • nike159 - "bird flight africa" • Hans - "canyon gorge antelope canyon"

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