Shortly after Joan Anzelmo took over the public affairs office at Yellowstone National Park back in the 1980s, I was cautioned that she could be brusque and difficult to work with.
At the time I ran the Wyoming office of The Associated Press, and that sort of head's up was concerning, as good relations with the park was certainly important to running the news operation in a state where a park such as Yellowstone was most decidedly a main news attraction.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ms. Anzelmo, while certainly professional and often in a rush, as you might expect for a two-person public affairs office in a park the stature of Yellowstone, was anything but difficult to work with. She wasn't always ready to shoot the breeze, but she tracked down whatever information was needed as promptly as possible.
And if more information or details were needed, she ran it down and provided it.
The summer of 1988, when wildfires seared a good portion of Yellowstone and brought media from across the country to her doorstep, was particularly trying for Ms. Anzelmo. So many media knocked on her door for permission to access the park to cover the fires that she resorted to a standard form stating:
To Whom it May Concern:
Please consider this as authorization for (fill in the blank) to have administrative travel and access to fire areas for media coverage.
The next line contained a blank for the reporter's name and their media affiliation, and below that Ms. Anzelmo's name, title, and space for her signature.
I still have mine, a momento, if you will, of that hot smoky summer.
Over the ensuing years our careers continued to overlap as her hats changed: she served stints as chief of public affairs for Grand Teton National Park, the entire National Park Service out of its Washington, D.C., office, and finally as superintendent of Colorado National Monument.
She endured more than her share of challenges and continually came out on top.
One of those challenges reared up last year when she had to fend off political pressure to open the monument to a professional bike race. In denying the permit request, Ms. Anzelo cited the logistics involved, which included closing Rim Rock Drive through the monument for 12 hours, feed zones, support vehicles, and overheard air support.
At one point, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper maintained that running a stage of the 2012 Quiznos Pro Challenge through the monument "can significantly add to the stature and profile of the effort to designate the Monument as a National Park."
Never mind that it was within the senator's purview, bike race or not, to simply introduce legislation for the name change.
In light of the backbone she displayed in that matter, the National Parks Conservation Association last week awarded Ms. Anzelmo the Stephen T. Mather Award, endowed by Booz Allen Hamilton, for her commitment to preserving the integrity and open access of the park for all visitors.
“Joan is a true champion of the parks and she has spent her career upholding the key tenets of our national parks, that they remain equally accessible to all people and that everything possible is done to preserve them for our children and grandchildren,” said NPCA Southwest Regional Office Senior Director David Nimkin.
“Throughout her career, from Yellowstone and Grand Teton to her time spent in Washington, DC, she has exemplified the spirit of Stephen Mather. Her actions in the last year at Colorado National Monument, in preventing the overt commercialization of the park by a privately-sponsored competition, despite personal attacks and political maneuvering, are merely the latest examples of her dedication to the principles the National Parks System is built upon.”
NPCA Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Craig Obey presented the prestigious award at the annual Association of National Park Rangers Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, this past Friday.
“Joan is exactly the type of person we want in charge of our national treasures,” Mr. Obey said. “Her determination and dedication to our parks cannot be swayed, and she has had the courage to stand up to pressure from powerful, connected interests. Throughout her career she remained focused on the proven policies and science that she knows are needed to retain the character and spirit of the National Park System for the future.”
Retired Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee, whom Ms. Anzelmo served under during her time in that park, praised her for the commitment she showed toward the park system throughout her career.
"In a career spanning 42 years, it is rare to work with someone whose caliber matches Joan Anzelmo,” Mr. Barbee said. “She is a top flight professional who conducted her career with honesty, wit, aplomb and resolve. Her principled dedication to the values embodied in the national parks is unrivaled — and when faced with pressures to compromise those values, Joan can be counted on to hold the line."
Following the leadership she showed during the 1988 Yellowstone fires, Ms. Anzelmo became a nationally acknowledged expert in crisis communications and subsequently was dispatched to some of the country’s most complex wild land fire situations and other national emergencies.
In May 2010 she was assigned to the Unified Area Command for the National Park Service in response to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Ms. Anzelmo is the recipient of numerous awards including two of the Department of the Interior’s highest honors, the Superior Service and Meritorious Service awards, and has been honored in Congressional Record and White House commendatory documents.
"I am deeply humbled to receive the National Parks Conservation Association’s Stephen Tyng Mather Award,” said Ms. Anzelmo. “This award, named after the first director of the National Park Service and the agency whose work I devoted my life to, is the honor of a lifetime. I am so grateful to have the National Parks Conservation Association as a steadfast partner and leader in helping to protect our nation's most precious natural and cultural resources and serve the vast visiting public to America's national parks."
During the quarter-century that Joan and I have worked together from time to time, we've certainly had a number of differences, but they were always handled professionally and resolved amicably. She never did prove to be difficult to work with over all those years.
Rather, Joan was a professional of, and for, the National Park Service, gave her professional life to the organization, and likely bleeds green when cut.
Her award is well-deserved.