Wendy Janssen, the new superintendent of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, has been with the National Park Service for 24 years. She's worked in a wealth of national parks literally from coast to coast, from Boston Harbor National Recreation Area to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego.
Ms. Janssen's last post was as superintendent of two of Idaho’s national park areas – Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and Minidoka Internment National Monument. While Hagerman Fossil Beds preserves the fossilized remains of more than 200 different plant and animal species, Minidoka preserves the history and cultural resources associated with the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
At the recent Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial Conference, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Janssen to talk about her amazing career in our national parks.
You're a native of Somerville, New Jersey, within spitting distance of where I spent 32 years of my adult life. How did you get interested in national parks?
My family knew and loved the national parks. My mother was from New Jersey but her father hailed from Montana. I'm the youngest of five girls. We spent a lot of time visiting the Smokies, Shenandoah, and going out West. We also took trips to historic parks such as Morristown National Historical Park. Our family always camped.
And when you graduated high school?
I went to Rutgers (the state university of New Jersey) and majored in Political Science. I applied for an internship with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Because of my major, they assigned me to Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park in Texas. I was taken by this major figure and did my senior thesis on LBJ and his environmental policies.
I was going to go to law school but instead I started working as a seasonal interpreter. After a couple of years, I landed a position as an interpreter at Boston Harbor.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I got the chance to meet people who have lived the recent history that the park unit commemorates. Nothing is more powerful. For example, at Pearl Harbor (World War II Valor in the Pacific), I met volunteers who survived Pearl Harbor.
At the Martin Luther King site, I met folks who were active in the Civil Rights movement. I was privileged to meet Mrs. Coretta Scott King. At the time, Mrs. King lived about five miles from the park. She had an eye for history. We inventoried her house in the hope of getting it for the Park Service. She gave us full access to the house.
It was spine-chilling to see the Rev. Martin Luther King's handwriting in some of the books. Ultimately, it didn’t work out and the Park Service didn’t get the house, but it was a fantastic experience.
Also the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail where I met John Lewis, a true American hero. Selma to Montgomery commemorates the events, people, and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama.
Now you're at the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. I realize that you've only been at Harpers Ferry for a few months, but what do you see as the greatest challenge?
I'm fascinated by the history of the A.T. Also I appreciate the importance of volunteers who built and maintain the trail. Everyone is so passionate about the trail.
We continue to stay engaged to meet external threats such as transmission towers and wind turbines in the viewshed. We need to protect the visual and scenic resources.
There’s also drug and alcohol use, which concerns us a lot. There’s folks on the A.T. who don’t care about the trail. The problem is not just the trail, but off the trail. We’re working with law enforcement outside the park.
But the greatest challenge is staying relevant and engaging youth. The Call to Action leading to the National Park Service Centennial in 2016 will highlight all the good things that parks have done. We also need to reach out to underserved population.
The A.T. is within a day’s drive of 2/3 of the US population. Why should people care about Leave No Trace and taking care of the environment? We're working with communities along the trail. It's important to have outreach.
My favorite question. Have you read Nevada Barr mysteries?
I actually know Nevada Barr. She was a law enforcement ranger in Natchez National Historical Park . Once Barr became a writer, she spoke at a regional NPS conference. She describes the park and park operations beautifully. It’s always fun to read one of her books on a park that I’ve worked in and wonder who she’s writing about.
What career advice can you give about becoming a park ranger?
Get an internship in a park; they're invaluable. SCA is a vibrant organization. Alternatively, just work in a park as a seasonal employee. Going to the LBJ house gave me opportunities.
Also, hang in there. It may take a while to get a full-time position. State park experience is also valuable.
NPS still has positions for general rangers. You can come in on a trail crew, or be an interpreter. It helps to build a resume. I had to work for two years as a seasonal before I got my first permanent position at Boston Harbor Islands.
How have two careers worked for you and your husband as you moved around?
My husband, Steve Floray, is a museum curator now with Department of the Interior. After the Smithsonian, the NPS has the largest museum collection in the country. He’s been able to be stationed close to me. The NPS has been very supportive of dual careers. We met at Natchez National Historical Park.
My average stay at a park was about four to five years; at the beginning of my career, it was more like two to three years. I never planned any of my moves. I never would have thought that I would return to Harpers Ferry, where I worked previously as an interpretive planner. I'm very lucky.
I applied for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail position and I’m humbled to be chosen for this position. I’ve been welcomed in this incredible community with all its Appalachian Trail Conservancy volunteers. The commitment and dedication is amazing.
Your office is only a few streets down from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). What's the relationship between Appalachian National Scenic Trail and ATC?
The ATC is not a friends group. ATC manages the A.T. in partnership with the Park Service. This partnership model may be the wave of the future. ATC was the first partnership, formalized in 1984. Now several parks are looking at this and more parks will be established with a partnership model.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail owns only a small part of the A.T. corridor. So it is important to communicate with our park partners, the Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service. I’m here to keep it going.
I’ve been to community events in Luray, Virgina, and Pawling, New York. I hope to get to Regional Partnership Committee that ATC holds up and down the trail.
And for fun?
I like to travel, hike, and camp. Now that we’re close to D.C., I look forward to museums and theater and visits with nieces and nephews.