Q: How did you become interested in working for the National Park Service?
I moved around a lot as a child and I was always longing for open, green spaces. I remember a place that today I would consider a channelized stream, with a fence you could get yourself under. There were rocks, and trees, and water—that to me was wilderness! When I visited COA, I didn’t even know that there could be that many trees in one space. I went out to the Park Loop Road and that was it. I was going to COA. That feeling of being next to the Maine coast and granite and ocean was a feeling I wanted to hold onto forever.
After my second year I knew I wanted to be a park ranger. That’s easy to say, but difficult to attain. I worked with national parks as a volunteer, a partner, and a seasonal for eleven years before I achieved permanent status—the holy grail of being a park ranger. I have now worked either full time or in shortterm assignments in more than twenty different parks.

Q: But you spent most of your time at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, right?
Seven years.

Q: You always speak with such love of Alaska. What brought you back to Acadia?
Acadia definitely was my first love, and your first love holds a special place in your heart. I have two sons. The older one was born in California, at Point Reyes National Seashore; the younger one in Denali. I wanted them to stay at Denali long enough to have wilderness in their blood, to know how to be a part of the landscape, to hunt, preserve, and protect; to hike off-trail. But they also needed to learn what a sidewalk was—and that you could get to the grocery store and back in less than eight hours.
I didn’t apply to Acadia initially. After they asked me if I would be interested, I went into the backcountry for three days. I took an off-trail hike into the Toklat, an immense area with a braided river that can take two hours to cross. A grizzly came out of the bushes, way too close; I could see the pores on his nose swivel toward me. That kind of grace snaps you into the moment. I felt like places in Alaska could be preserved more deeply through lessons learned in the lower forty-eight. If national parks are going to work anywhere, Acadia is the place. Acadia has a broad level of love and devotion by communities and visitors with strong connections to the park. Its complex opportunities and challenges are years ahead of some other parks.

Q: What do you see as the role of national parks in this country?
Parks are set aside as symbols of what we as citizens strive to conserve, protect, and hold safe for future generations. They’re created for the heritage contained within— wildlife, plants, science, scenery, ecological processes, experiences, wilderness—and for people to interact with that heritage. Some people come to national parks to have fun with their families, some to have salient conversations with themselves in quiet places, some to heal, some for inspiration. We have those affiliated with the military who come for restoration. Parks offer real things in real places.

Q: And what’s the role of interpretation?
Interpretation is the art and act of speaking for these heritage resources because they can’t speak for themselves. We’re working to decrease the amount of formal programs and have more roving rangers to meet people where they are, and talk to them about what they’re noticing. Rather than a sage on the stage, we’re working to have rangers help catalyze discovery and encourage self-reflection through facilitated dialog: a guide on the side. So if someone sees a turtle, in addition to giving the name of the turtle, the ranger might invite the visitor to observe what it’s doing, ask about its habitat needs, relate this turtle to the broader ecosystem, and take a couple steps over to a conversation about turtle egg-laying seasons and eventually climate change. If we are not ultimately preserving the resources we are interpreting, we are not doing our job. 

Q: How are interpreters trained?
It’s a crash course. There are three components to interpreting: knowledge of the resource—plants, geology, history; knowledge of the audience—who they are, where they are coming from; and appropriate interpretative techniques—asking relevant questions so a person might discover that plants are cool and decide to give something back to a park or green space. In the trade this is known as changing So what? to Aha!
We want visitors to learn something, have fun, and be safe. For some, there is then the potential for a transformational experience— an experience that resets or resizes your lens and gives you some perspective that adds quality to your life and your life path. Several moments of gazing into the Atlantic Ocean or seeing your child run like a deer across a mountaintop may be all it takes to gain perspective on what really matters in your life.

Q: But while Acadia is the most intensely visited national park, given its size, many don’t even go into the woods. How do you engage and nurture and improve those experiences?
Different people want to experience the parks in different ways. The traditional way is to quietly hike. But if you grow up in a city and feel gravel under your feet—that might be wilderness. It’s easy to fall into elitism and think there is only one right way to experience parks. Once while I was working in the Hulls Cove Visitor Center a man told me he wanted to rush through driving the Park Loop Road and video the whole thing so he could go back home to relax and enjoy the video. My initial reaction was that he would miss so much. But if he didn’t get a speeding ticket and the experience connected him to the park, it’s not my role to judge. He could share that video with friends and family and make more friends for the park. I try to reframe Wow, the park is too busy today into Wow, look at all these people choosing to be in a national park. It would be far more tragic to have completely empty parking lots in August than overfull ones.

Q: We have so many alumni working for the park service, does having a human ecology degree help?
Human ecology is the backbone of everything I do. As a park ranger I have many complex areas to handle. The human ecology mindset helps me to telescope my brain to zoom in to a piece and out to the whole. It’s always a part of how I go about thinking about and understanding things. Knowing that systems are real and complex, and that any change reverberates throughout the system, helps me to be reflective about the choices I make.
I spent twenty-two years away from MDI. Everywhere I went— Intermountain, Pacific West, Africa—I needed to explain human ecology. Here, I just have to say I’m a COA graduate and people know the mindset I walk into the room with. That’s a nice feeling.

Much of our conversation was gathered during a hike with high school students participating in The Wonder of Acadia, one of COA’s Summer Field Institute programs, through personal discussions, and at a summer morning Coffee & Conversation between Christie and Ken Cline, law and policy faculty member. —Donna Gold