Suzanne Lewis: Yellowstone National Park
Here’s the third of four Rachel Carson Awards winners honored this year by National Audubon Society for following Carson’s tradition as environmental leader and forward-thinker. At the Women in Conservation Luncheon this past May, actress Isabella Rossellini, Suzanne Lewis, superintendent of Yellowstone, Tiffany Foundation president Fernanda Kellogg, and Disney’s Beth Stevens earned accolades.
Managing the country’s oldest national park, and the largest within the continental United States, is no small feat. For the last eight years, Suzanne Lewis has been the superintendent of the of 2.2-million acre wilderness, the first woman to hold the position. Her dedication to preservation over her 32-year career as a National Park Service employee, and her love of the outdoors, led Audubon’s Women in Conservation Program to give her the Rachel Carson Award earlier this year. Audubon sat down with her after the ceremony to discuss what it means to oversee one of the most popular national treasures. Read on for an edited version of our conversation.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you became a park ranger?
My undergraduate school roommate, her dad was a park ranger and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do during the summer. He said you ought to apply to be a park ranger, and I did. And I got the job and so I worked my first season before I went off to graduate school, and then I came back and worked summers for another two years and then I became a permanent ranger. It was a great experience.
And how did you decide to go from a seasonal ranger to a permanent one?
My first season I thought it was fun. I didn’t really feel like I had to be a park ranger for the rest of my life, but it grew on me. By my second or third season, I thought, ‘This is something I really want to do.’ I was a history major and history is a big part of the national park system. I just thought, 'You know this is a great way to spend my professional life using history to tell the stories of our nation.'
Do you think that the park service is in a unique position to teach people about conservation because of that history?
I think it’s fundamental to the mission of the National Park Service to provide education, whether you call it understanding, appreciation, or inspiration. The parks all weave together to tell a really important story about ourselves and about our struggles as a nation and our relationship to the environment. And some of those stories aren’t pretty: the story of slavery, a topic not often talked about, or the extinction of animals in certain landscapes. I think the park service, little by little, has matured and is becoming much more bold in its voice to tell those stories.
Do you think that there are a lot of people who could benefit from reconnecting with the natural world?
I think it’s almost critical, especially since we’re finding that there are many people who haven’t had those experiences in the outdoors, in a large natural landscape. I do think that it leaves an impression on you. To be standing in Lamar Valley in the middle of Yellowstone National Park is a stunning, life changing experience. I think that for everyone there is something in the great outdoors.
Do you think that it’s challenging to be the superintendent of such a large park with so many visitors and so many employees?
I think that Yellowstone was a very controversial place when it was established in 1872 and it remains that today. There are still hotly debate issues and so it makes it challenging in the sense that you feel the yin and the yang of every issue. I just try to find the center of my compass and steer hard by it, listen to both sides, and then make the best decision that I can. And they’re not always popular and they’re not without criticism. I count my blessing that I spent many years in other national parks before Yellowstone because Yellowstone is not a dress rehearsal. It’s a get up and go every day.
Do you find it difficult to be a woman in conservation?
You know, I don’t. I’m often asked what’s it like to be the first female superintendent at Yellowstone and my response is usually that I’ve kind of been the first female everything in any park I’ve been at, so I was used to it by the time I got to Yellowstone. Everywhere I was a superintendent before Yellowstone, I was the first female superintendent, so I had a lot of practice. The park service has changed, there are more women in the park service than there have ever been.